Women Talking starts with a title card that reads, “What follows is an act of female imagination,” and this is an accurate depiction of what is to follow in the film. The Sarah Polley-directed film is adapted from the novel by Miriam Towes and is centered on the women of a Mennonite colony. The film follows these women as they discuss what their response should be to years of deliberate sexual abuse by the men in their colony. The male leaders in their community silenced the women by explaining away these attacks as figments of the “wild female imagination.”
Polley is a tremendous filmmaker who has told intimate stories in both narrative film and documentary film. In Women Talking, she routes a compassionate story to show that women finding their voice can lead to a revolution. The film is set in a Mennonite community but is an exploration of any woman finding herself in a world dominated by men. The novel itself was inspired by appalling events in a Mennonite community in Bolivia, where for years women were drugged and assaulted while they slept by a group of men in their colony. While this may be too much for some to watch and process, the beautifully-directed film comes together with exquisite costume design, a beautiful score, and haunting performances from the entire ensemble to deliver one of the best films of the year. Women Talking should be a front runner for Best Picture at the upcoming Oscars.
The film not only combines all of its technical aspects to create a well-crafted cinematic achievement, but it also is a film with such important commentary that will continue to hold up over the next few decades. Best Picture does not always have to go to a film with a message per se, but we do tend to see the pendulum swing from heartwarming crowd pleasers (CODA, Green Book, The Shape of Water) to films that have more of a social message to offer audiences (Spotlight, Moonlight, Parasite). While there are plenty of films in contention this year that offer a social message of some kind, Women Talking feels it has a strong commentary for our current political climate, as well as all the notes the Academy could want from a Best Picture winner. The film has name recognition in the director’s chair, well-known actors, and a familiar production company distributing it, and the film offers moments of relief throughout its runtime despite its heavy subject matter.
Women Talking is a perfect ensemble film in that Polley allows each character to have an opportunity to shine with a monologue, tremendous backstory, and a lived-in feeling for everyone on screen. Women Talking steers away from showing the women in their domestic chores or routines within their marriages; the film is centered around the decisions they will make as a group for the women and children of their colony. While we are reminded that the women were not educated, these women are shown in such an intelligent, compassionate light using democracy, debate, and discussion to rise to their self-liberation.
Polley displays a powerful hand with what the film does not show throughout Women Talking. The film keeps the audience aware of the horrible, violent crimes that have taken place, but we never see the violence against women onscreen. There are flashbacks to the women awakening each morning after the assaults took place, but we never see the assaults onscreen. Polley carefully subjects the audience to the trauma that builds after an attack, but never does the film feel triggering in what you are watching.
The performances in Women Talking are some of the best of the year. Rooney Mara plays our lead Ona with such pure idealism and hope, you can feel it radiating through the screen at times. Mariche (Jesse Buckley) is fierce in her convictions, but Buckley plays her with such unspoken vulnerability you never feel she is personally upset with the other women. Salome (Claire Foy) is courageous and the most prepared to leave the colony. Foy plays Salome with such empathy and power; you feel both her wrath and love instantly. Ben Whishaw plays the only male character in the film, August, and delivers a beautiful performance. Michelle McLeod delivers such a powerful performance as Mejal that could be triggering for some recovering from any experience with assault, but it is such a necessary point of view in the film. Women Talking displays the traumas that arise after an assault in varying ages of women.
As Zoë Rose Bryant discussed in her brilliant piece, Women Talking not only starts a conversation but asks the tough questions, starting with, ‘What is next?’ While some may be uncomfortable with the questions and answers from the film, that is perhaps the point. The conversation had within Women Talking is important and has been brushed aside, not just by men, but by women too. As Zoë highlights in her piece, women have been conditioned to not speak about the violence women are subjected to throughout their lives. The conversation the film starts is a necessary one for not only women to heal but generations to move forward with their lives.
When considering Best Picture, Women Talking should be at the forefront of the conversation for a win. Polley directs the film with empathy, love, compassion and strength. The film perfectly combines each technical category to deliver one of the best motion pictures of the year.
Author’s Note: Please read Zoë’s piece for her eloquent discussion on an alleged abuser’s producer credit on the film. I cannot say it better. Supporting this film does not equal supporting him.
Check out our review for Women Talking.