Women Talking gives us a harrowing but hopeful tale of the start of a female revolution that packs an emotional punch.
All may seem quiet on the grounds of an isolated Mennonite colony, but a revolution is taking place in a hayloft that will be heard loud and clear for generations. After discovering a horrific truth, women must decide whether to carry on as they have their entire lives, or risk it all by leaving everything behind. It’s far from a simple choice to make. As the audience, we are among the lucky ones invited to take in the powerful conversation and witness the start of a new female-led society.
Director and writer Sarah Polley’s fourth feature Women Talking has been labeled by some as being static or boring, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s similar to the 1957 drama 12 Angry Men, in that it focuses on an important decision and is confined in one space, but this film updates the formula to pack an emotional punch suitable for the 21st century. Polley’s story – adapted from Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel that was loosely based on real-life events at the Manitoba Colony in Bolivia – carries immense weight beyond just the confines of this colony. Through the conversations eight women have, Polley tackles women’s roles in the world, freedoms and fears in a well-paced 104-minute runtime. As harrowing as the situation is at times, Polley still manages to provide viewers with a sense of hope for the future and what’s possible when women do the talking.
Polley respectfully chooses to not show the horrors these women face from the men in the colony, but the devastating aftermaths are clear nonetheless. The women have been told that the bruises on their bodies and pregnancies have been the result of demons, spirits or wild female imagination, but in reality the men have drugged and raped them for years. When young girls discover what is happening, one mother, Salome (Claire Foy), attacks one of the rapists and the ensuing confrontation draws police attention. The men of the colony leave to post bail for their jailed brethren and give an ultimatum to the women: either forgive or leave the colony.
Over the course of two days, the women experience freedom like never before. They learn what voting is and invite all of the women in the colony to make their opinions known. When there’s a tie between staying and fighting or leaving, a small group of multi-generational women comes together to decide what to do. Salome has made her opinions known early on and wants to leave, but others have different thoughts. Scarface Janz (Frances McDormand) recuses herself from the discussion – she wants to stay, forgive the men and continue life without much fuss. Mariche (Jessie Buckley), a stark opposition to Salome, has doubts about leaving and what would happen to them all, but her abusive marriage doesn’t make a case for staying either. Ona (Rooney Mara), a lighthearted, unmarried, pregnant woman, also toys with both options but a bit more quietly. One man, August (Ben Whishaw), a teacher, has been invited to take minutes of the meeting – the women do not know how to read or write.
For likely the first time ever, these women’s opinions are being heard and have the potential to make real change. Yes, talking in the hayloft is the main “action” here and might not seem very exciting, but Polley’s carefully crafted words and sentences hook us in and help us understand the dire consequences of either decision. To stay means the women continue to live in oppression and put their children in danger, but at least they can go to the kingdom of heaven. To leave means they head into uncharted territory and risk their fate, but with the potential for something better.
As each woman shares her thoughts, we see them grapple with their fears and hopes over an uncertain future and question their loyalties to the only place they’ve ever known. Even if we may not relate to the exact situation these ladies find themselves in, the back-and-forth conversation feels familiar. As a woman, making a choice about your future, career or family can feel earth shattering, may be scrutinized by others, and sometimes requires an examination of every possible scenario. To be a woman in this world means you often have to be ready for any outcome and feel confident in the choices you made, even if others question them. Polley highlights that part of the female experience so brilliantly with the way these women often tear each other down for their opinions, before they themselves come to understand everyone’s point of view.
The everlasting conversation may grow old for some, and its #MeToo commentary may not add that much more to all that’s been said over the years, but that doesn’t mean stories such as this shouldn’t be told. Thankfully Polley does give us a few welcomed lighter moments, such as when Greta keeps bringing up her horses at the most inconvenient times or eye-rolls that nearly pop out of people’s heads.
The ensemble gathered does a stellar job of making these conversations interesting to hear and watch. Foy and Buckley are electrifying as they often go against each other and their positions on the decision at hand, while Mara’s head-in-the-clouds Ona brings a lighter approach to all that’s being discussed, even though she, pregnant from a rape, shows exactly what’s at stake. If there’s one who seems a bit out of place at times it’s Whishaw. Not just because he’s one of few men there, but because August’s frequent emotional moments are distracting and too theatrical, even if there is good reason for them due to his pining for Ona and tragic backstory.
The film’s color palette has been criticized for being too dark and saturated. It does look a bit strange at times, but it’s not distracting or as jarring as the film’s trailer made it out to seem. If anything, it adds to the bleakness of the situation, although it did prevent the film from making certain shots pop, especially those in the hayloft. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s earthy-sounding score and uplifting melodies help provide needed contrasts to the dark subject matter.
In the end, cinematography choices don’t take away from what Polley is able to brilliantly cover in such a short runtime. Women Talking will linger with audiences due to its emotional gut punches, biting conversations and, unfortunately, always relevant themes, but also provide hope for what’s ahead. The future is female in their world, and it looks like a more equal, compassionate and just society than the one they were born and raised in. We could use a bit of that in our world too.
Likely: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress (Claire Foy and Jessie Buckley), Best Supporting Actor (Ben Whishaw), Best Score
Should be Considered: Best Costume Design
Release Date: December 2, 2022
Where to Watch: In Theaters
Ema Sasic is a journalist living in Palm Springs who covers entertainment, health and everything else under the desert sun. She is a member of the Hollywood Critics Association.
Favorite Actress: Cate Blanchett