Women Talking (LFF Review) – A Devastating Debate Drama

DIRECTOR: Sarah Polley

CAST: Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Ben Whishaw, Frances McDormand, Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod, Emily Mitchell, Liv McNeil, Kate Hallett, August Winter, Kira Guloien, Shayla Brown

RUNNING TIME: 104 mins

CERTIFICATE: 15 TBC

BASICALLY…: A group of Mennonite women gather to discuss a series of traumatic events…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

This review of Women Talking was conducted as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2022.

Sarah Polley’s return to filmmaking, ten years after her last feature (the well-received documentary Stories We Tell, itself following her first two noteworthy narrative films Away From Her and Take This Waltz), could not have come at a devastatingly appropriate time. With women’s rights and health issues firmly at the centre of current political conversation, a movie about women discussing some truly horrific experiences within a strictly patriarchal society feels exceptionally of the moment, and Women Talking – which Polley adapts from the novel of the same name by Miriam Toews – offers some insightful, and at times utterly necessary, conversations about what the right choices are when taking matters into one’s hands, particularly regarding women’s safety and well-being.

The film takes place in a secluded Mennonite community, wherein there have been several cases of women and young girls waking up with bruises, injuries, and even pregnancies from the night. Despite being told that it is the Devil’s way of punishing them, it eventually comes to light that several men in the community have been using animal anaesthetic to drug and rape the women in their sleep, but when the men are arrested and are forced to travel to pay their bail, the women use this opportunity to decide what course of action they must take. They come to two options (simply doing nothing is discarded almost immediately): they either stay on the farmland and find other ways to fight the injustice, or leave to pastures new and start afresh. The bulk of the film is comprised of meetings between a group of women from different families, where they – and schoolteacher August (Ben Whishaw), who is assigned to take minutes since none of the women can read or write – debate the pros and cons of staying or leaving, ultimately confronting their shared traumas head-on as they attempt to rationalise what the right thing to do is.

To say that it’s basically a femme take on 12 Angry Men would be to severely undermine the real power of the central story, which is about a lot more than simple debate. Women Talking is a film that leaves you horrified and disturbed by the context, which is made more sinister by the fact that, aside from Whishaw’s August, you never see the faces of any other male in this community, making them akin to the shark in Jaws where the fear comes from what you don’t see. The movie is, at times, even shot like a horror film, with Luc Montpellier’s pale-grey cinematography adding an eerie layer to the atmosphere that often leaves you unsettled. However, Polley keeps her film tightly focused on the issues at hand, and through some fierce writing she communicates through her numerous characters the real dangers of not just living in a community so overcome by despicable acts of sexual violence, but also the consequences of leaving behind a place that they have all spent their lives around, knowing nothing about the outside world to a point where they don’t even have a map of the surrounding area. Polley’s filmmaking also pushes forth a powerful feeling of love and soul through some beautifully composed shots that highlight how, even in the face of unspeakable cruelty and abuse, their faith in both their religion and each other is stronger than the men would ever realise.

This is also the kind of film that gives multiple actresses some noteworthy material to bring out the very best of themselves, and this is an ensemble that features some excellent performances all across the board, to where it’d be impossible to choose just one to put forward for awards consideration. You have great actors like Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Ben Whishaw, and Frances McDormand (who takes on a very small role, in addition to producing) delivering some truly outstanding work with plenty of provocative monologues delivered with their utmost force, and there is not a weak link in the cast as they all operate on the same wavelength in ways that only the best ensembles in movie history have been able to do (of course, it’s still early days to determine if the ensemble of Women Talking is indeed an all-timer, but this might well be one of the finest ensemble performances in a movie for a long time). All of these women feel like real people, each with their own set of flaws and ideas, and while they may all be united by the horrific acts of their fellow men, they do still harbour great care and respect for one another, in the ways that their religion has surely helped them to contain over the years. Even when you don’t exactly agree with where they stand in this debate, you do still understand them enough to know why they would even think that way to begin with, and a lot of it really is down to the performances and how they truly reach levels of poignancy and despair that you love to see being performed in this way.

If there were any flaws, it would be purely from a structural perspective. While it isn’t based on a play, the limited locations and dialogue-heavy performances do give off that contained vibe, and it makes a few elements of the movie where characters have to explain certain plot points instead of just showing them feel as though they were somehow constrained either by a limited budget or – less likely – a lack of imagination. It doesn’t trip the film up in any impactful way, but the miniscule structure can prevent the full extent of this traumatising story from being explored to its full potential within the filmic realm.

However, the most important aspect to Women Talking lies within its relevancy; of course, neither Polley nor her collaborators could have predicted their film would come out at such an alarming time when women’s health and rights around the world were being challenged and threatened, but there is a very of-the-moment quality to it that feels legitimately important to witness. Even if you can’t shake one or two flaws like myself, you should at the very least consider this to be a vital film that does deserve an audience right now, at this very moment in time.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Women Talking is a powerful and ponderous tale of power and autonomy in a rattled community, made all the more vital not just by the current political climate, but also by writer-director Sarah Polley’s firmly acute direction, and several fantastic performances by an outstanding acting ensemble.

Women Talking will be released in cinemas nationwide on Friday 10th February 2023.

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