I have two small gripes about the naming of Women Talking, which are my only two jokes I’m allowing myself to make about this film since it is such a serious affair. 1. I’m sad this movie has that name so when an inevitable docudrama about the history and drama surrounding The View releases, it can’t use what would’ve been an excellent title, and 2. This is the movie that actually should’ve been called Decision to Leave.
Okay, now that that’s over, let’s get to an excellent film, shall we?
Sarah Polley, known early in her career as an actress on our screens as young as age 7, though more recognized in her breakout role in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen at age 9, has slowly taken a rise to becoming one of the more enigmatic indie filmmakers of today, having not acted since 2010. While Polley’s last narrative feature was 2011’s Take This Waltz, she has made splashes with her 2012 documentary Stories We Tell, as well as adapting Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace into an acclaimed mini-series for Netflix. Polley, in the age of “content,” has remained a steadfast quality-over-quantity filmmaker, nursing longstanding projects with an amount of care that is quickly noted once her stamp is seen in her work.
Though, with that, Women Talking might just be Polley’s first true home run.
Set in a Mennonite colony in an unspecified region of America in 2010, Women Talking follows the intricacies of a meeting of local women deciding their next steps in the community following a colony-wide rape of the women by a group of men within the colony, some being their own family. Presented with the opportunity to stay within the colony and fight for justice, or to leave the colony to protect their children, the women engage in fierce debates regarding the pros and cons of both in the wake of such a senseless act of violence. While some, such as Janz (Frances McDormand) and Mariche (Jessie Buckley), wish to stay and forgive the men to avoid conflict, others, like Salome (Foy), desire to stay to fight and defend themselves against their attackers, and others, like Ona (Rooney Mara), see the benefit in both options, relegating themselves as a more neutral third party of sorts. Sorting through their trauma and places as women within the fundamentalist community, the women must assert their agency for the first time in their lives to decide on what is truly important to them.
On paper, Women Talking might sound like a film that would emotionally beat you down until you just couldn’t take it anymore, imbued with bleak, hopeless, almost exploitative narrative beats to extract as much sympathy and sadness out of the audience as it could. It might sound like that, but it’s far from it. Women Talking is actually a film about women using their power and experiences to realize the standing they have against oppressive forces seeking to keep them silenced. That, even if only in the face of an atrocity, they discover how important they are to their colony, and how things around them would collapse if they were gone, as much as the men would like for them to believe it wouldn’t, and that they’re just mere vessels for procreation. This is a film about women’s empowerment on a fundamental (no pun intended) level, and the processes of realizing and reclaiming that agency.
Women Talking, despite being based on a novel by Miriam Toews, plays out much like a stage play in the tight, restrictive, and secret quarters of the barn in which their debate is held. This is where you learn about the politics of power within their community through telling, not showing. While in any other film this might be seen as a missed opportunity, in this case, it works very well to prevent Women Talking from feeling exploitative to the women being portrayed and the trauma they have endured at the hands of the colony’s men. With this extended look at the women’s discourse, happening in nearly real-time, not unlike a courtroom drama, gives the opportunity for Women Talking to imbue so much more humanity to these women beyond just their religion and experiences, and occasionally even produces some laughs in the midst of such a heavy situation. This, personally, spoke to me heavily as humor is the #1 coping mechanism I use to help myself push through trauma in my life, and seeing it used and validated as a real mechanism for healing was lovely.
What also works wonders in Women Talking that compliments this play-like structure is how the film is shot. While I wasn’t crazy about, nor was completely against the severe color grading of the film, looking as much like a monochromatic film as much as one in color, what I did appreciate was utilizing the ultra-wide 2.76:1 aspect ratio in a way that made the large, flat barn floor operate as a sort of wide stage the women could move around in freely. Used primarily for that of Cinerama pictures of the mid-20th century, this is usually a shooting style reserved for grand westerns on large vistas, but works wonders here as a tool to increase the stage in which the ensemble uses to their advantage. It’s a similar, though hardly identical, effect seen from Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, even though the two films couldn’t be more different.
And we haven’t even touched upon the performances of the film, which are possibly going to be the biggest conversation going into awards season. Across the board, these actresses (and Ben Whishaw) deliver stunning portrayals of women confronting their experiences and learning how to properly express their emotions after being denied the opportunity to do so for so long. Mara makes for a fabulous lead as her moderating stance gives a great stability to the more volatile opinions of the supporting cast, like Buckley, who is cold and contrary to much of the beliefs of the group. However, it’s absolutely Foy who walks away with Women Talking in the palm of her hands as the fiery mama bear determined to protect her children by any means necessary against violence from the colony’s men, even if it means murdering every last one of them. She channels such an impulsive rage that I feel so often in myself during these times of immense stress that I couldn’t help but agree with each of her points, even if they did change as she evolved through the film. This is a supporting performance for the ages, and Foy deserves every award she gets for this.
And this is all capped off with another, and completely unsurprisingly, killer score from Icelandic maestro Hildur Guðnadóttir, who balances the quiet, domestic life of a pacifist colony, to that of the most intense thrillers as the film reaches its disquieting apex. Guðnadóttir has a wonderful ability to use her music to sway a scene’s vibe perhaps more than any working composer today, acting sometimes in complete opposition to what one might expect in a certain scene, emphasizing certain emotional cues, but rather looking ahead to the grand scope of the story, and how her music can emphasize the journey the audience goes on, more so than the feelings in that current moment alone. It’s always just thrilling to listen to her at work.
Women Talking is a tough sell to moviegoers as it’s a film that’s so unflashy, so intimate, so dialogue-driven and so narratively heavy that I can’t quite blame some for avoiding it to preserve their emotional integrity, particularly around the holiday movie season. But Women Talking is so much more than its online summaries can describe, and it really touches on more emotions than just those of sadness and anger, including deep love and boisterous communal laughter and finding agency in a world so deprived of it for a certain group. This is a film that understands the human condition in that we aren’t just vessels for trauma or victims of our own circumstances, but multitudes of emotion, intelligence, gentleness, as well as of anger, sadness, and violence. It’s a beautiful portrayal of a quiet uprising, emotional evolution, and how true faith, lacking the pretense of power-grabbing oppression that can turn so many off from it, can save you in the same breath as oppressing you. It’s a film that made me feel many contradictory things and hold many different opinions and see all sides of those affected by this violence, and I feel all the more whole because of it.
Screened during Film Fest 919 2022.
In select theaters December 2nd, 2022.
Expanding December 25th, 2022.
For more information, head to MGM’s official Women Talking webpage.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.