Women Talking takes place in a reclusive religious commune – it's not stated explicitly, but we are to assume that these are Mennonites or something similar – in the year 2010, although without a cameo by a census taker we may as well be in the 19th century. We learn in the film's opening minutes that several young men on the commune have been drugging the women with cow tranquilizer and raping them. Someone – we never know who – had enough courage to go to the local police and have the rapists arrested, and so the men of the commune, acting in uniform patriarchal solidarity, have gone into town for 48 hours to bail them out.
This leaves the women behind to hold a vote on their predicament.
With most in agreement that the chauvinist menfolk will not change their ways, they choose between three options: stay in the commune and forgive the men, as God would want them to; stay in the commune and fight the men until they can bring an end to generations of abuse and inequality; or take the children and abandon the commune altogether, braving the outside world and leaving the men to fend for themselves. With only a handful voting for the first option, the other two choices end up in a tie. Eight representatives then gather in a barn to break the tie by weighing all the pros and cons. As they have been kept illiterate, they are joined by the colony's only decent man, a once-exiled teacher (Ben Whishaw) who stays behind only to take notes of the meeting.
Ironically, Women Talking reminds me mostly of the all-male 12 Angry Men, with its disparate characters trying to overcome their opposing points of view to reach the fairest verdict. Yet despite its title, writer/director Sarah Polley, adapting the 2018 novel by ex-Mennonite Miriam Toews, focuses as much on silence as she does on discussion. The film, elegantly shot by Luc Montpelier, quietly shows us the beauty of this rural colony; even as the women concede that there are no real downsides to leaving it, and spend no time worrying about how they will survive the outside world, the visuals show us what they are actually giving up.
Underneath it all, Women Talking is about the meaning of forgiveness and sacrifice: these characters are deeply devout, after all, and it's notable that their faith in their deity remains unshaken in spite of the horrors they have endured at the hands of their men. (Aside from the teacher, it's implied that none of the men in the colony has a single speck of kindness in his soul.) It's not a religious film, but it respects its characters' beliefs. So if it seems a little weird that nobody pops up to say, "How are we going to live in modern society?", it's clear that for Polley – and presumably for Toews – logistical uncertainties are not the point here.
The film's third act is surprisingly tense: after the women finally agree on a course of action, Polley's pacing gives us the sense that at any second the men will return and take their revenge, even though we know that can't be true. But it underscores the fear that has pervaded these women's lives and leaves us shaken – not about the women's immediate future, perhaps, but about the world they must live in, wherever they end up.