Writer/director Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking” has everything, except the specificity and unique point of view that women’s cinema needs.

With an impressive cast, best-selling source material, two Oscar nominations, and one Oscar win, Women Talking has gotten a lot of buzz. Unlike some of this year’s other best picture nominees, Women Talking isn’t supposed to entertain crowds or draw hordes of movie fans to the box office. It’s supposed to make you think. Written and directed by Sarah Polley (Take This Waltz), the film is based on Miriam Toews’s novel of the same name which is inspired by events that occurred in an isolated Mennonite community in Bolivia. The novel explores what might have happened if women in the community had met in secret to decide what to do about ongoing sexual abuse. Together, they must figure out if they will leave, stay and fight, or do nothing. They carefully consider the pros and cons of each option, and they must ultimately choose between the familiarity and religious security of their community and the potential freedom they might experience in a world they know nothing about.


L-R: Michelle McLeod stars as Mejal, Sheila McCarthy as Greta, Liv McNeil as Neitje, Jessie Buckley as Mariche, Claire Foy as Salome, Kate Hallett as Autje, Rooney Mara as Ona and Judith Ivey as Agata in director Sarah Polley’s film WOMEN TALKING. An Orion Pictures Release. Photo credit: Michael Gibson. © 2022 Orion Releasing LLC. All Rights Reserved.

In Polley’s cinematic adaptation of the novel, the women’s secret meeting is brought to life by a fierce cast of leading ladies that includes Rooney Mara (Nightmare Alley), Claire Foy (First Man), Jessie Buckley (Men), Judith Ivey (Through the Glass Darkly), and Frances McDormand (The Tragedy of Macbeth). Ben Whishaw (No Time to Die) also co-stars as a schoolteacher named August, whom the women have asked to record the minutes of their meeting. Polley sets just the right tone for this grave meeting with earthy colors and a grayish filter that casts a heavy, depressing shadow over the story. The emotional effects of trauma are woven into the aesthetic and technical aspects of the film, creating a chilling tone that is only broken by brief moments of female camaraderie and laughter. Aside from the occasional heated outburst, Women Talking is slow, steady, and emotionally contained.


L-R: Ben Whishaw stars as August, Rooney Mara as Ona and Claire Foy as Salome in director Sarah Polley’s film WOMEN TALKING An Orion Pictures Release Photo credit: Michael Gibson © 2022 Orion Releasing LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Through the endless cycle of argument, discussion, impassioned monologue, metaphor, laughter, and agreement, this ambitious film seeks to dramatize the dark and lonely thoughts that many women experience in the aftermath of sexual abuse. Should they report it? Who will listen to them? Will they be more secure if they stay under the thumb of the abusers? What consequences will they face if they fight back? The women of Polley’s film pose all these questions and more, and their attempts to provide answers only lead to even more questions. At first, it seems that they may just be stuck in a deadlock. Each woman in the group has a very different response to abuse, and none of them are eager to change their mind. As they make their opinions known, it becomes clear that each character is meant to represent a different voice in feminism. They aren’t traditional characters in a story as much as they are caricatures of collective voices in a broad discussion that’s been going on for longer than any living person can remember. Ona (Mara) is the reasonable academic, the one who wants to weigh each option carefully and think outside the box. Salome (Foy) is the angry woman whose rage cannot and will not be satisfied by forgiveness. Mariche (Buckley) is the strong but frightened woman who seeks peace by trying to keep things as they are.


Director Sarah Polley on the set of her film WOMEN TALKING. An Orion Pictures Release. Photo credit: Michael Gibson © 2022 Orion Releasing LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Although these characters are meant to be Mennonite women in 2010, their conflicts aren’t specific to women of any group, religion, or culture. Their restrictive Mennonite community is simply a convenient symbol for the giant black hole that is patriarchal society. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with symbolism, but there are a few reasons why the symbolism of Women Talking doesn’t work. First, it’s uneven. The sets, costumes, and other details of the production design indicate that this is a story happening in our world. The women even quote verses from the Bible, so we know that they aren’t following some fictionalized religion. The dialogue, on the other hand, is highly stylized. The women speak with awkwardly formal syntax, like they’re quoting academic essays that aren’t meant to be read aloud or poetry that’s not supposed to be part of everyday conversation. They repeat phrases like “the men” and “the kingdom of heaven” ad nauseam, and they fumble over globs of words that no one would bother using in casual conversation. It’s extremely awkward, even for a strict and formal religious community. In a setting that seems realistic, the painfully formal and cumbersome dialogue sticks out like a sore thumb. In order to appreciate the dialogue as a symbol for a much larger conversation, you have to forget that these characters are Mennonite women in a seemingly real world circa 2010. You almost have to see them as feminist muses or goddesses who are discussing all the woes of women in some far-off corner of the universe. Women Talking fails to strike the right balance between realism and stylized storytelling, making it difficult for viewers to appreciate the movie’s messages.


L-R: Actors Rooney Mara, Judith Ivey, Claire Foy, and director Sarah Polley on the set of their film WOMEN TALKING, an Orion Pictures Release. Photo Credit: Michael Gibson. © 2022 Orion Releasing LLC. All Rights Reserved.

The second reason why the symbolism in Women Talking doesn’t work is related to the first. Because the characters seem like they could be part of our real world, they should be dealing with unique and specific issues. But they aren’t. Their conversation is an abridged version of the evolution of feminist thought, not the secret planning of real women in danger. Women Talking tries to represent way too much, and it’s so universal that, paradoxically, it lacks the specificity and nuance that make women’s stories relatable. At this point, we don’t need broad generalizations about injustice against women. We need specifics. We need real stories (or fictional stories with realistic and dynamic characters) that put feminist theory into context. How do men in positions of power in specific cultures and communities keep women silent? How do real women experience sexism today? In what subtle ways does sexism still affect women in seemingly progressive communities? Women Talking had a golden opportunity to illustrate the specifics of sexism and highlight unique lived experiences. But instead, it chose empty and overreaching symbolism.


Rooney Mara stars as Ona in director Sarah Polley’s film WOMEN TALKING An Orion Pictures Release Photo credit: Michael Gibson © 2022 Orion Releasing LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Women Talking is indeed a movie that’s supposed to prompt discussion and make you think. And, therefore, it’s worth watching just for the opportunity to develop your own opinions about it. Unless you’re an avid Blu-ray / DVD collector, however, your money will be better spent buying or renting a digital copy. Unfortunately, the home release doesn’t include any special features. So, if you want to know more about the making of Women Talking, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Available on digital February 21st, 2023.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD March 7th, 2023.

For more information, head to the official Women Talking webpage.

Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.


Categories: Home Release, Recommendation

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