After a decade away from film, Oscar-nominated writer/director Sarah Polley makes a triumphant return with Women Talking.
Adapted from Canadian author Miriam Toews’ eponymous novel, Women Talking features an all-star cast that includes Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Frances McDormand, and Ben Whishaw. The film made its international premiere at Toronto International Film Festival 2022, marking a homecoming of sorts for the Canadian auteur, whose previous features, Away From Her (2006) and Take This Waltz (2011), also made premieres at the renowned festival.
Women Talking tells the all-too-real story of a group of women in a Mennonite colony dealing with continued sexual and physical abuse at the hands of their husbands, brothers, and male neighbors (specifically, their being drugged, raped, and gaslit). When the men temporarily leave the colony, the women take advantage of their absence and gather in a hayloft to discuss their options: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. All who are present — ranging in age from young children to seniors (the men, unfortunately, do not discriminate) — put forth their own testimonies, perspectives, and answers to the problem. As the women discuss what it means to leave and what it must entail to stay and fight, it becomes clear that no solution is as straight-forward as it initially seems. Emotion and tension run high as the women try to work fervently together to figure out the proper course of action before the men return.
With this movie, Polley, who pulls double duty as screenwriter and director, proves once again why she is one of the greatest filmmakers of our time. No stone goes unturned in Women Talk as each character advocates for a different solution. Some are fearful of the uncertainty that comes with leaving and starting anew, while some are unsure if staying and, more precisely, fighting is in accordance with their personal and religious beliefs. All, of course, are angry and exasperated by the circumstances they were born into. Complexity, in both feeling and choice, is at the fore, and it’s with this inherent tension that the film dares — indeed, implores — its audience to confront this widespread issue that countless women face each day.
One of the Best Films at TIFF 2022
Women Talking, naturally, features many women talking. Polley, here, has gathered the best of the best in terms of actors working today, all of whom turn in emotionally complex and powerful performances. As Ona, who is pregnant with her rapist’s child, Mara is perfectly restrained, acting somewhat as the group’s voice of reason and urging each solution be thoroughly thought out before being decided upon. This isn’t to say she is unaffected; only when the group decides their course of action does she finally burst into tears. It’s a revelatory moment that further cements Mara’s reputation as a once-in-a-lifetime actress.
It’s Buckley and Foy who have the showier roles in Women Talking. The former, as Mariche, starts off as antagonistic, admonishing the women for even entertaining the idea of leaving. Of course, it later becomes clear that her anger is misdirected, and it’s with great emotional dexterity, particularly in the last act, that Buckley translates her character’s core. Meanwhile, Foy, as Ona’s sister Salome, is enraged, opting to stay only because she wants to murder the men who rape. Indeed, Foy is the acting MVP of Women Talking, and her impassioned speech about why she feels what she feels will leave you speechless — both in awe of Foy’s performance and in horror at what she recounts.
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In addition to the performances, Women Talking is a crowning technical achievement as well. Cinematographer Luc Montpellier, who has DP-ed all of Polley’s feature films thus far, delivers exquisite work here, using a desaturated color palette and dynamic camera movements and angles to amplify the emotional stakes. Peter Cosco’s production design is as arresting as it is transportive. And Hildur Guðnadóttir’s music underscores Women Talking‘s notions of hope and possibility, which helps elevate the story and empower the women exercising, possibly for the first time in their lives, choice.
Ultimately, Women Talking is undoubtedly one of the best films to have screened at TIFF this year, possibly even to be released overall in 2022. In a perfect world, especially as we head into awards season, Polley’s film would be showered in gold. In fact, Variety is already predicting Oscar gold for Polley, which would make her the third consecutive woman director to win. However, the pesky definition of “an Oscar movie,” as outlined by The Hollywood Reporter, may prove an obstacle.
Divorced from awards, of course, Women Talking is nonetheless a must-watch film for everyone. Though it seeks to tell a women-centered story from the perspective of an ensemble of women characters, it’s not necessarily a movie solely for women. Indeed, it’s for everyone. Just as Whishaw’s August, the colony’s schoolteacher, is paramount in taking notes during the women’s meeting and educating the boys in his class, men — good men, in the real world — are responsible for being part of the solution. Polley’s film holds space, and, most of all, urges all in the audience to lean in and face, without filter or metaphor, the truth.