Two films released this year focus their extraordinary narratives on a group of women collectively coming together to put an end to unspeakable acts of abuse and violence toward them at the hands of men. The first being an investigative thriller in She Said and the next by way of a dialogue heavy dramatic imaginative Women Talking. Both films giving a voice to the voiceless, fighting a systemic injustice for those who feel they have no power. Both reminding us of the power of a groups effort to change for future generations, both empowering and disturbing at what the women endured on a daily basis and both telling their story that leaves an instant impact on whoever views them.
Written and directed by Sarah Polley who adapted the book of the same name by Miriam Toews, Women Talking gets its point across effectively without showing the acts that the central characters describe in full detail. Taking place mostly in one location, a hayloft, the women who have been left alone after most of the men in the Mennonite colony go bail out the abusers who were caught and arrested. With the men gone, the women are left with 3 options of what to do: Do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. Put to a vote, arguments are made for each option.
Like the novel for which the film gets its namesake, the narrative follows a select group of 9 women to decide what the women will ultimately agree upon post the arrest of their attackers. To record the minutes of the meetings, August (Ben Whishaw), one of two men who remained at the colony is unlike his novel version. In the novel, August is the narrator recounting every word said in these crucial meetings but here he’s more of the fly on the wall, giving his opinion when asked but staying silent in his support for whatever decision the women come to.
In lieu of a dramatic adaptation, Polley’s film becomes a discussion grounded heavily in searing dialogue. More so a collection of ideas, thoughts and emotions that gets the point across rather than showing what happened. To understand what these women go through, the horrors that they face from a young age into adulthood, we don’t need to see the events play out. Instead, the despair is shown on faces with bruises and looks of utter pain and sorrow. A shot or two of the aftermath of an attack is interwoven that makes us understand fully the atrocities that have been committed. Those deciding on what the women of this remote Mennonite colony will do include Ona (Rooney Mara), Salome (Claire Foy), Mariche (Jessie Buckley), Agata (Judith Ivey), Scarface Janz (Frances McDormand), Greta (Sheila McCarthy), Mejal (Michelle McLeod), Autje (Kate Hallet), Nietje (Liv McNeil), and Miep (Emily Mitchel).
Brought together by Polley, Women Talking features one of the strongest ensemble casts in recent memory. It’s through the dialogue heavy debate like story that each battered and bruised women gets their moment to speak and more importantly be heard. Coming in at a modest 104 minutes, there is equal time shared between the ensemble that leaves a lasting impression well after the films conclusion. The type of themes and messages that will linger and have an impact on how fragile life is looked at going forward with strong implications for a change in the balance of power. And it’s the talent of the cast that lifts Polley’s sincere and honest screenplay. Coming to the conclusion takes bravery and patience – patience to endure the hardships of the past but resilience to face a new challenge head on and commit to the unknown of whats to come next.
Over the course of 2 days, the women laugh, cry, scream, and listen as the options are weighed. Each with its own set of pros and cons that August takes extensive notes on and each women with their own perspective and opinions being shared. Some with stronger opinions than others but all the same, the message of being together and deciding whats best for all then as an individual overpowers the decision. Led by their faith, Polley’s script keeps us in the heat of discussion, hanging on every angry and prideful monologue that passes through the group.
Comparative to She Said the agreement stems from the hope for the future generations. The doing nothing option is quickly dismissed and only benefits the abusers of the colony in the long run. It’s giving power to the problematic saying “boys will be boys.” The only two real options are staying but fighting or leaving entirely. Staying and fighting will come with its own heavy burden of loss of humanity, but the thought of revenge is not something to dismiss. Ultimately, Polley’s screenplay gives enough time to weigh these options individually at a steady pace. Supplementing the deliberate lack of a melodramatic narrative is a touching score from Hildur Guðnadóttir putting music to a moment when words just won’t get the message across.
Strengthening the gloomy atmosphere is a total wash out of a muted blue lens. Dimming the colors of a bright sunny day further creates the necessity for the women of the colony to stick together to have a brighter future. Its only in the epilogue that the color is fully restored since hope and power has been brought back to the women who came together to support each other instead of remaining with the cyclical behavior that has been taught and handed down generation to generation.
Women Talking is undoubtedly one of the best pictures of the year. With something meaningful to say, the heart of the film is the result of the excellent performances by the ensemble cast with standouts by Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, and Ben Whishaw. I admittedly wish Frances McDormand had a bigger role but her looming presence never once disappeared despite her character getting so little screentime. At its heart, Women Talking is a lesson, one that shouldn’t have to be taught but a lesson nonetheless about sisterhood and standing up for whats right regardless of the implications against faith or the behavioral norms. Polley’s adaptation is fully engrossing using a desaturated color palette to heighten the urgency for a life altering decision to be made.
Screenplay By: Sarah Polley
Directed By: Sarah Polley
Music By: Hildur Guðnadóttir
Cinematography: Luc Montpellier
Starring: Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Ben Whishaw, Frances McDormand, Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod
Release Date: December 23, 2022
Running Time: 1 Hour 44 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 90%
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