Polley’s cast is a murderer’s row of talent. Jessie Buckley plays Mariche, a woman suffering horrific abuse at the hands of her husband. Buckley’s playing of it tends towards the sarcastic, complete with eye-rolls, which is not necessarily the strongest choice. Claire Foy fares better as Salome, so infuriated by what has happened she attacked one of the men with a pitchfork, discovering she has murder in her heart. Foy is a powerful presence, and her rage is incandescent. The great Judith Ivey plays Agata, and the equally great Sheila McCarthy plays Greta, the two elder women bringing wisdom and authority to the table (but also shame: they raised their daughters in this environment). Michelle McLeod, Kate Hallett, and Liv McNeil play smaller roles but make very large impressions. Frances McDormand shows up a couple of times as “Scarface Janz,” heading up a small faction of women who don’t participate in the debate because they have already chosen to stay. Another peripheral character (more so in the book than the movie) is Nettie (August Winter), who—after being raped and impregnated—starts wearing boy’s clothes and asks to be called Melvin. Melvin has been rendered mute by the trauma, and only feels safe with the children, looking after them while the women debate.
And then there’s Ona, played by Rooney Mara. Labeled a “spinster,” she was raped and is now pregnant. She is a curious woman, a gatherer of facts (about butterflies, stars, the natural world), and even calm enough in her heart to forgive her rapist, or at least argue the point that he wasn’t born a rapist. It’s akin to a #notallmen argument. Ona is almost too good to be true, but Mara gives a beautifully open performance. While there is a whiff of Mennonite-manic-pixie about the character conception, Ona is also surprising. You’re never surprised at what Buckley’s Mariche says, she’s more of a broad “type,” but you’re never sure what is going to come out of Ona’s mouth. No wonder August is smitten. Ben Whishaw is heartbreaking and completely believable.
While the debate is fascinating in its particulars—and could be used as a model for debate practice—there’s something rather formal in the result, betraying the artifice of the original source. The women in Bolivia were heroic for coming forward to testify against their rapists (men they knew) in court, and in so doing they broke with every tradition they knew. They put themselves “beyond the pale” of their own conditioning and told their stories in front of the world. Their act took tremendous courage. Toews’ made-up debate seems like an intellectual exercise in comparison.
Now playing in limited theaters and available everywhere on January 20th.