Reel Beach: Canadian connection helps the strong voices in Women Talking be heard

Women Talking played at the Toronto International Film Festival this month. The film brings together the creative energies of author Miriam Toews, filmmaker Sarah Polley and actor/producer Frances McDormand. Photo: Orion/United Artists.


This year’s Toronto International Film Festival played host to powerful female voices such as Hilary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Taylor Swift, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Viola Davis.

One of the most anticipated films was Women Talking which brought together the creative energy of author Miriam Toews, filmmaker Sarah Polley and actor/producer Frances McDormand.

The events depicted in the film strike close to home for these talented women. Each has their own complicated family history.

“I consider myself an actor, not a movie star.”

Winner of four Academy Awards, Frances McDormand was born Cynthia Ann Smith in Illinois in 1957 to a single mother and adopted at eighteen months by Canadian parents, Vernon and Noreen McDormand.

Rev. Vernon Weir McDormand (1922-2011) was born in Nova Scotia and moved to Toronto at 17 to study at a church school.

After time in the military and as a student pastor, Vernon attended Toronto Bible College while living on Gillard Avenue close to Monarch Park. In 1947 he married church secretary/nurse Noreen Nickleson (1919-2007) from West Lorne, Ontario.

The couple left for Illinois in 1949. As a pastor for the Disciples of Christ, Vernon moved around a lot to various churches.

The McDormands adopted three children, including the youngest, Frances, whose birth mother was likely a parishioner. The actor spent her entire childhood growing up in small rural towns and embracing her parents’ faith. Her sister, Dorothy, became a minister herself.

While the McDormand family life revolved around the church, Sarah Polley’s childhood was all about show business. Toronto-born Polley has written eloquently about her troubling experiences as a child actor in her recent memoir, Run Towards the Danger, which is nominated for a Toronto Book Award.

Polley shared deep family secrets in her revealing documentary Stories We Tell (2012). Sarah was only 11 when her actor mother, Diane, died. It wasn’t until she became an adult that Polley found out that the father she grew up with was not her biological father.

Like Frances McDormand, author Miriam Toews has a deep insight into religious communities having grown up in a Mennonite family in Manitoba. Her latest book, Fight Night, is set in Toronto where she now lives.

In Women Talking, Toews writes about the aftermath of traumatic assaults in a remote, patriarchal Mennonite colony. Margaret Atwood has tweeted, “This amazing, sad, shocking, but touching novel, based on a real life event, could be right out of The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Toews’ book, All My Puny Sorrows, was adapted by Michael McGowan into a sad, but beautiful film about the effects of mental illness and suicide on a family. Sarah Gadon and Allison Pill give heartbreaking performances as troubled, but loving sisters.

A title like Women Talking may leave a lot of people (OK, males) rolling their eyes, but there is room for all kinds of films. Hollywood has not been very open to women telling their stories. Not everyone wants to just see Top Gun or Spider-Man.

Each of these strong women have advocated for female and diverse voices being heard and appreciated.

TIFF has often been a bellwether for Awards season. Women Talking may well become a part of the Oscar conversation when it opens in theatres in December.

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