“This story ends before you were born,” an unseen narrator says at the beginning of Sarah Polley’s expert adaptation of Miriam Toews’s novel “Women Talking.” The narrator tells of a group of women in an unnamed religious colony who discover they have been repeatedly drugged with cow tranquilizer and raped by the men who live among them. They were gaslit into believing it was ghosts or Satan. How they respond is decided by a vote; the choices are “do nothing, stay and fight, or leave.”
Who is narrating — and to whom — is eventually revealed. The more pressing point is how the narration serves as an oral history to be passed down by its characters from generation to generation. “Women Talking” ends with the promise that the listener’s story will be different, a shift made possible by the knowledge of what came before.
For marginalized groups, oral traditions are of great importance. History is written by the victors, who are almost without exception that society’s majority. As seen in many a history book, they focus and embellish their own narrative at the expense of other truths. That becomes the official story.
So it’s ironic that the person in charge of the written version of events in “Women Talking” is a man, August (Ben Whishaw). Logically, it makes sense, as only the men in the colony were taught to read and write. Even Toews’s novel, which is based on true events that occurred in a Mennonite community in Bolivia called “Manitoba,” is told from August’s perspective.
But an onscreen caption at the beginning of the film (it also appears in the foreword of the book) introduces a different viewpoint. It reads, “What follows is a work of female imagination.”
After one of the men is caught mid-assault, he reveals the names of the numerous other men who participated in this hideous nightly ritual. One of the survivors, Salome (Claire Foy), attacks the men with a pitchfork and, for their own safety, the rapists are moved to a jail in town. The rest of the men leave to post bail for them.
Women in the colony are taught to vote and must decide on one of the three outcomes. When there is a tie between “stay and fight” and “leave the community,” three prominent families convene in a barn to make a final decision. Initially, the matriarchs are Greta (Sheila McCarthy), Agata (Judith Ivey), and Scarface Janz (Frances McDormand).
Janz is adamant about doing nothing and forgiving the men so that, according to the tenets of the faith, she can see the Kingdom of Heaven. She does not stay long, as that option is already off the table. Instead, “Women Talking” chronicles the arguments for the two options that tied for votes.
“Is forgiveness that is forced upon us true forgiveness?” asks Ona (Rooney Mara), a woman who is carrying the child of her rapist. Ona is something of a wild card among the group. Salome is furious — but Ona appears to be contemplating all the options in real time, so her comments are unexpected.
August finds her inquisitive nature attractive despite knowing they have no future together. In a way, she reminds him of his mother, who was excommunicated for questioning the community’s laws. This threat kept women in line. Greta’s revelation that she forced her own daughter Mariche (Jessie Buckley) to repeatedly forgive an abusive husband is one of the film’s most haunting moments.
“Women Talking” is full of phenomenal acting by a group of actors at the top of their game. There are a lot of characters here, but even the most minor are given moments to shine. Michelle McLeod is memorable as Mejal, a smoker prone to panic attacks. Kate Hallett’s teenage character, Autje, has a poignant scene with August where she describes her desire for knowledge. She also is in the one scene where an outsider appears in the community, a census taker whose truck speakers blast the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer.”
Ivey and McCarthy bring a conflicted complexity to their roles as elders. Mara and Foy credibly play off each other’s opposite temperaments. Buckley is occasionally a bit over-the-top, lashing out at Ona and calling her a spinster, but she still leaves a lasting impression.
As the sole man in the group, Whishaw has the toughest role to play. He’s an interloper, and he knows it. There’s such delicateness to his performance, which we don’t often see in male characters. His silences, coupled with the confused and occasionally anguished look on his face, speak volumes of emotion he can barely contain.
The only misstep is the cinematography, which feels intentionally ugly, desaturated to a rather irritating degree. It does force us to focus on what’s being said, which is the most important and most captivating element of “Women Talking.”
Written and directed by Sarah Polley. Based on the book by Miriam Toews. Starring Judith Ivey, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Sheila McCarthy, Rooney Mara, Michelle McLeod, Kate Hallett, Ben Whishaw, and Frances McDormand. At AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square, and the Coolidge. 104 minutes. PG-13 (disturbing content, bloody post-assault scenes)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.