The anger one feels toward oneself can be a destructive force. We blame ourselves for actions that have occurred, even if they were out of our control. Sometimes, we find ourselves unwilling to act because we believe we are culpable for how a situation unfolded. At the heart of Women Talking, Sarah Polley‘s stunning new drama, the women of a small religious community debate amongst themselves. The film unfolds as
Adapted from the novel by Miriam Toews, Women Talking follows a religious community shaken by recent revelations. After some of the girls expose a culture of rape within the culture, the women of the town hold a vote. When the vote, which asked women to stay in the community and fight, or leave to build a new society, ends in a tie, the leaders among the women debate. Ona (Rooney Mara) guides much of the debate, while Mariche (Jessie Buckley) and Salome (Claire Foy) take opposing sides. August (Ben Whishaw) is the long man allowed at the proceedings, taking minutes and documenting the debate as it unfolds.
Polley approaches the material with an empathetic but honest eye. She sets up sequences that feel more at home in horror films than drama. However, the actions committed against these women are truly upsetting. Even with all the moments that Polley forces the audience to endure, passing comments shake to the core. Polley’s career has featured stunning emotional sequences of disclosure, and Women Talking fits that bill as well. Few directors can fully embrace that to their film’s advantage. Polley builds in natural breaths for the audience and even injects some beautifully poetic pieces of humor. This is not a purely dour experience, despite the stakes and events informing the debate.
Polley also pushes the audience into a unique visual style, desaturating the world of Women Talking to see the world through these women’s eyes. The actual framing and shot selection astound, showcasing a newer tool in Polley’s directorial development. The intimacy of Take This Waltz and Away From Her remains in these shots, oftentimes creating empathy for this culture. Cinematographer Luc Montpellier and Polley seemingly storyboarded the hell out of the film, and if not, these are truly beautiful natural finds. To complement the visuals of Women Talking, Hildur Guðnadóttir‘s score sneaks up as one of the best of 2022.
Attempting to pick a favorite performance in Women Talking is very much a tall task. Foy, Buckley, Mara, Judith Ivey and Sheila McCarthy each deliver stunning work. Foy brings the requisite anger to confront the situation, truly showcasing the idea of self-loathing for letting the actions continue. Meanwhile, Buckley tries to reason with others, believing running from the men will not stop the actions but encourage the men to chase them. She brings a vulnerability one understands as her fear, but she subverts this idea by consistently showcasing strength. Ivey truly surprises as the eldest member of the tribunal, and she delivers several of the most important monologues of Women Talking.
Strangely, Whishaw’s role feels exceedingly out of place. Whishaw often plays odd characters, and this one is no different in how he attempts to reconcile with the women. The distrust he coaxes out of the other women makes for entertaining bits. However, a final act reveal did not land for me. It’s a misfire of both performance and writing that ultimately makes the sequence feel like cheap manipulation. There are not many misfires in Women Talking, but the Whishaw of it all did not work for this critic. This character feels forced into the story to provide a male voice to the proceedings, but like the women holding court, we rarely want to hear from him.
Furthermore, casting Frances McDormand added to a level of disorientation. It’s hard to imagine her character would have very little impact on Women Talking, but that proves to be the case. An actress of her stature in this role makes the audience question her importance from beginning to end. Polley might have sought a misdirect, but it feels at odds with the story.
Once again, Polley captures an emotional tale with stunning clarity. However, a few small issues prevent Women Talking from becoming a signature film event of 2022. Still, Polley’s ensemble drama is poised to impact anyone who views it. It handles complicated questions about abuse and deserves a platform for that alone. How do we move forward when we agree to let someone harm us in violent and abusive ways? Would we hate ourselves for allowing it to occur? These ideas make it clear that Polley sees a much bigger picture than this story. As a result, Women Talking quickly rewards multiple viewings and close watches. Polley’s excellence becomes undeniable.