To expand upon my quick thoughts in the video, Women Talking is a drama film written and directed by Sarah Polley (Take This Waltz). Featuring Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Ben Whishaw, and Frances McDormand, the film is based on the 2018 novel of the same name by Miriam Toews. The story follows a group of religious isolationist women who discuss whether or not they should leave their colony after a series of brutal rapes and assaults.
At a religious commune, Ona (Rooney Mara) wakes up in her bed bloody and in pain. She screams for her mother who comes to comfort her. Elsewhere as some children play together in a field, Salome (Claire Foy) angrily makes her way to a locked shed. She forces her way in and attacks a man with a sickle screaming indignantly before she is pulled out by a group of people. Several men are arrested for their protection and sent to town while the women hold a meeting. They are given the option to forgive their attackers before they are bailed out of jail or face exile from the colony. The women ultimately decide on three options: to do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. When the vote ends in a tie, a smaller group of women are chosen to make the final decision for everyone.
Any story that involves rape is going to be tough to get through. Sarah Polley does a terrific job with both directing this film and adapting the screenplay in a way that makes the pill easy to swallow. As the title clearly states, Women Talking is dialogue heavy and is more or less a conversation that can be hard to talk about for several reasons. This feature feels personal to Polley as she also claims to be a survivor of sexual assault. The discourse between all the women effectively conveys the nuance of the subject without being preachy. Who is truly to blame for the multiple rapes that have happened? The men definitely are, but the women are also complicit in the society that raised the men. By never standing up for themselves, questioning things, and excommunicating people that do question things they have allowed their community to get to this terrible point where even sisters aren’t safe from their brothers.
Polley directs this story like a period piece to give the audience a feeling of distance. The way the characters speak and dress makes you feel like it’s a story from the past. When women didn’t have the same rights as men and were treated as if they were property. About 40 minutes in however you realize the year is 2010. That little bit of information makes everything more horrifying. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s (Joker) somber score casting a sense of dread and despair over over the entire feature becomes more prominent after this realization.
Polley also keeps the story focused on the women at hand. The first person you see and hear is a woman as well as the last. There are glimpses of young and teenage boys throughout, but the only grown man shown in clear view or has a speaking role is August (Ben Whishaw). He is there to take the “minutes” for the women since they cannot read or write. He has recently returned to the village after his family was excommunicated when he was young. His mother questioned how the community did things and is not remembered fondly by the men. Whishaw packs so much emotion and tenderness into his character. You feel that he cares for the women and knows they should leave. He never oversteps his boundaries and always apologizes when he feels he should.
At center stage of course is the women. Ona is the first woman we see. Her rape has left her pregnant. Instead of being angry that she is forced to bare her rapist’s child, she states how much she loves the baby as it is pure and has done nothing wrong. Just like her rapist and all people were when they were babies. Mara delicately handles this character as the argument around how Ona feels is bound to stir up political conversations. She is soft-spoken and sweet and asks important questions. Salome is the second woman we meet and she is the total opposite. “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” That’s what you feel from Foy in this role. The pure hatred and disgust Salome has for the men leaves her questioning why God would even allow such violence. You believe her when she says she will kill them all for their crimes. I connected with her the most because I feel her reaction is justifiable and if she does not get an Oscar nomination I will riot.
The way the violence is depicted in the movie is done tastefully. We only see the aftermath of the crimes, but it’s enough when coupled with the performances to understand the gravity of what has occurred. The only issue with the film is the color grading. Most of the colors are muted to give the film the look of a period piece, but this makes it hard to differentiate people at night. It looks as if most of these scenes were shot during the day and a filter was added in post to give the scenes the appearance of the night or early morning.
Women Talking is somber throughout, but commanding on every level. Well-written and well-directed, Sarah Polley has crafted a beautiful story of religion, abuse, healing, and female empowerment. I give Women Talking an Excellent 9.2/10. This film is filled with powerful performances that deserve recognition come awards season and the subject matter is something that warrants open and unbiased discussion from all sides.