'Women Talking': A Moving, Timely Exploration of Justice and the Power of Conversation
Do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. These are the three choices that a group of mennonite women find themselves debating throughout Sarah Polley's latest film, Women Talking. The film, based off the 2018 novel by Miriam Toews, is a dialogue-heavy exploration of justice, solidarity, and community, as well as the power dynamics that perpetuate violence against women. There is a simplicity to the film, at least in terms of its execution, as it primarily made up of the conversations that the women at the film's center are having, but it is the ideas and emotions that their words evoke that give the film some nuance and a powerful, somewhat hopeful message that is timely and deeply affecting.
Set largely in a hayloft, Women Talking begins with the women of a mennonite colony discovering that the men in their community have occasionally drugged and raped them. After some of the attackers are caught and arrested, the women gather to decide what they will do. This leads to some difficult conversations between the women, where they discuss the power that the men in the colony have had over them, whether it would make sense to leave, or if they should fight back, among other things.
Tackling a film where there is substantially more dialogue than action can be difficult, but writer/director Sarah Polley handles this masterfully. Polley has an innate ability to show how we process emotions in the face of traumatic events so effortlessly and so fully, and this film is an excellent example of this. There is a mix of shock, anger, and sadness among the women, but as the film goes on, we see how they confront these emotions, and face the hard truths of the situation they're in. There is so much honesty throughout their conversations, which exposes the true humanity of the situation. Polley adapts the dialogue from the novel in a way that fits the film perfectly, and it gives the film a great deal of momentum and drive as well. Polley's script is the backbone of the whole film, and makes for a moving experience.
Polley's direction is also strong, as she takes some influence from Terrance Malick in how she allows the camera to drift and focus on other things throughout. It gives the film a more atmospheric quality, and keeps the film from feeling stuck in one place. The film isn't all that cinematic, but Polley knows when to add in some small flourishes here and there. She also handles the film's tone beautifully, as there are some great moments of levity to ease the heaviness of the film's subject matter. A running gag involving Sheila McCarthy's Greta bringing up her horses, Ruth and Cheryl, is one of my favorite aspects of the whole film and relieves some of the tension that the film builds throughout. Polley has such wonderful control of the film, and this is undoubtedly some of her finest work to date.
Of course, the core of the whole film lies in its ensemble, all of whom give excellent performances. Everyone works together so well, and each actor brings something great to the table. Rooney Mara gives a rather subtle performance, but she does play such an integral part in the film as a whole. Her character, Ona, has one of the more fascinating arcs in the film, and Mara portrays her with naturalism and empathy. I was also quite impressed by Jessie Buckley's performance, and I really enjoyed the small details she brings to the character. She allows the wide array of emotions her character is experiencing to be internalized and build for much of the film, leading to a great moment where she is able to release some of them. The MVP of the film, in my opinion, has to be Claire Foy. Foy has some of the film's biggest moments, but it never feels like she's going over the top or being melodramatic. You truly feel the hurt and anger of her character, and it feels so genuine. She has a scene early on where she expresses her distress that blew me away, and in a just world, she would have been nominated for an Oscar.
The one major complaint I have with the film lies in the look of the film. Specifically, the color grading gives it a muted, almost murky aesthetic that isn't the most pleasant thing to look at. I get that it was intentional, but it just feels more distracting than anything else. It's not that the camerawork isn't good, it's just that the grading is confoundingly bland. The camerawork itself is perfectly fine, and the editing is quite solid as well. Furthermore, the score from Hildur Guðnadóttir is beautiful, and fits the film so perfectly. The film is so excellent across the board, but the color grading remains the one thing that sticks in my craw. However, just about everything else with this film is so great that I can't be too mad about it.
Women Talking is much more engaging and moving than one might think, given that it is mostly made up of lengthy sequences of dialogue. On the face of it, it might seem simple, but it is an enthralling tale of the power of conversation and community, and how important these are in order to achieve justice. The ensemble, along with Sarah Polley's tremendous direction and screenplay bring this film to life so fully, and it is easily one of the most moving films of the past few years. It is both heartbreaking and empowering, and the timeliness of its themes is sure to resonate with many.