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Women Talking: Sarah Polley’s Heartfelt Drama is Minimalist Filmmaking Done Right

(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,
An Orion Pictures Release
Photo credit: Michael Gibson
© 2022 Orion Releasing LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Women Talking preview screening provided by Universal Pictures

Women Talking prioritises deep and meaningful conversations ahead of violence and confrontation”

To stay or to leave, two decisions that often plague any individual that is looking to make a momentous change in their life. For Sarah Polley’s star-studded female ensemble in Women Talking (2022), the decision seems obvious: leave to escape the battery, bruises and torture endured by the men of their colony.

Simple, however, it is not. Adapted from Miriam Toews’s 2018 novel of the same name, Polley’s film becomes as much about the need to survive as it does about the need to leave. Her ensemble —comprised of the elderly, to the middle aged, to young children— have a small window to make their decision after the male perpetrators who have been drugging and raping them are taken into custody, but are expected to be let out in the next few days. The situation is even more prickly given the film’s religious undertones, where the women grapple with the possibility of not being let into heaven if they don’t forgive their abusers.

For sisters Salome (Claire Foy) and the pregnant Ona (Rooney Mara), forgiveness is out of the question, as they would rather stay and fight. In fact, all of the characters save for Mariche (Jessie Buckley) and the fearful “Scarface” Janz (a small role for Frances McDormand), are against the idea. It’s from this early rejection of the idea of forgiving that Polley is able to kick into second gear. Is it OK to turn a blind eye to abuse and forgive for the sake of forgiving? Is there a future in a place where you’re not valued? What will staying in a broken system mean for your children? These are all heavy questions that Polley carefully nurtures in her script while ignoring any direct confrontations or depictions of violence by choosing deep, meaningful conversations instead.

It makes for an interesting juxtaposition between reason and violence, and requires the group-therapy-like discussions to hold the film together — which they mostly do. There are depictions of the aftermath of a violent act be it in a brief flashback or, as seen towards the films conclusion, two of the characters walk into the barn setting after being beaten where they take a seat and resume deliberation. It’s a powerful portrayal of the sort of desensitisation or acceptance towards violent acts, but it makes these conversations all the more impactful — as though these women are aware of how little time they have to make their decision and every moment and word uttered, counts.

WT_02993_R4 (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.

(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.

Most of the film works because of its ensemble who deliver Polley’s dialogue with an unyielding veracity. It helps that the subtle camerawork from cinematographer Luc Montpellier is comprised of either wider shots of the group or contained close-ups and reaction shots to keep the focus centred on these back-and-forths. The bleakness of the predominately grey colour palette further heightens the lack of colour in the world of these women — only really opening up in warmth and vibrancy towards the film’s closing sequence.

Ben Whishaw brings another layer of warmth as the humble scribe, August, who takes notes of the women’s conversations due to them not being literate. He serves more as a reminder that good men are missing from this colony, and his often silent presence further highlights the female ensemble’s desire to be heard and have a voice.

Women Talking does give its characters a platform to speak and to attempt to forge a new world for themselves; what that world or colony looks like isn’t exactly clear, but it’s enough to take that first step, trust in the process, and not look back.

Women Talking opens nationally from the 16th of February, 2023.


Arnel Duracak

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