Women Talking, 2022.
Written and Directed by Sarah Polley.
Starring Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Ben Whishaw, Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod, Liv McNeil, Kate Hallett, August Winter, Frances McDormand, Kira Guloien, Shayla Brown, Emily Mitchell, Eli Ham Lochlan, Ray Miller, Vivien Endicott Douglas, Nathaniel McParland, and Marcus Craig.
A group of women in an isolated religious colony struggle to reconcile their faith with a string of sexual assaults committed by the colony’s men.
Women Talking (the latest from writer/director Sarah Polley) is uniquely timely. Taking place in a fictional Mennonite village with antiquated lifestyles and no technology, the film often feels like a period piece despite taking place in relatively modern times (based on the book of the same name by Miriam Toews, a former Mennonite who loosely pulled from disturbing events in 2011 Bolivia).
Not unlike how Sarah Polley burned Video Killed the Radio Star on repeat into the minds of anyone that saw her brilliant relationship drama Take This Waltz, the filmmaker strikingly utilizes licensed music but for a different effect here. In Women Talking, a stranger drives by the area with Daydream Believer blasting on the radio, which naturally draws the attention of the younger residents/teenagers who are allowed none of these entertainment pleasantries while starkly reminding viewers that the horrors going on in this village are not of any specific place and time, but unfortunately, all time. Plenty of movies make the case that times haven’t changed; Women Talking threads the old ways and present together, emphasizing horrific circumstances that could happen anywhere throughout history and even into the future if no one does anything about it.
Furthermore, all the women have in this community are dreams. Repeatedly raped and physically abused while unconscious by way of animal tranquilizer darts, the women are cruelly manipulated and under the impression that they are being defiled by ghosts and Satan for letting their imaginations run wild (fascinatingly, rather than opening with a title card declaring the film is based on a true story or some version of the truth, Sarah Polley opts for “this is a work of female imagination.” That is until the men are caught in the despicable act, with Salome (Claire Foy) successfully getting the culprits arrested. However, it’s not for long, as the rest of the locals are quick to bail the tormentors out on bonds.
There is some downtime before those men are released, which further pushes two central families into various clandestine barn meetings discussing how they should proceed; do nothing, stay and fight, or leave (despite not knowing how to read or write or where they would be going) to trailblaze a life of their own. Starting with the aforementioned Salome, she is the most righteously angry of the bunch, gutted that her daughter has been raped. Naturally, she is on the side of fighting, at one point delivering a ferociously scintillating monologue about how if it comes down to it, she has reached a breaking point and would disavow the religion’s rules and murder someone if it means protecting her children. It’s a breathtakingly fiery monologue that accomplishes conveying injustice and immense emotional pain, leaving one ready to grab a weapon and fight these sexually violent men that can’t control their impulses by her side.
This line of thinking is at odds with Jessie Buckley’s Mariche, who is more willing to forgive and look the other way to follow the religious text closely and ensure she still gets into heaven. It would also be easy to go for the low-hanging fruit and tear down this religion, but Sarah Polley maintains respect for these characters’ beliefs. The religion itself is not the problem, but rather how the men twist and warp tests of faith into unspeakable evil. Part of the point is unpacking the healthiest way to practice their faith without giving themselves over to men for control and abuse. As for Jessie Buckley, she is headstrong and fiercely passionate about defending her frustrating beliefs, but believably so, and commands attention; it’s an incredible turn in a career already full of phenomenal performances.
Then there is the raped and pregnant Ona (Rooney Mara), with her perspective landing somewhere between Mariche and Salome. She has a whipsmart knack for taking each of the points and mining something deeper out of them, something that forces the other two women to question what they think is the best course of action. Ona is stuck figuring out whether to fight or leave (not flee, which is an important clarification considering how important words are to these characters), with good reasons for both. And while Mariche is willing to participate in the discussions about what to do even though she has made clear she wants to do nothing and continuously locks horns with Ona, there are some who outright abandon the cause, namely Frances McDormand and one amounts to a glorified extended cameo. However, she is such a legendary and talented performer, even a cameo is enough to make an impact.
Only one man is present in the barn, and it is disgraced Mennonite August (Ben Whishaw), who was banished after his mother questioned the village practices, now having returned as a schoolteacher to the children. His job is to take notes on everything the women discuss, but he also has his own baggage and apologetic demeanor. As one character rightly points out, it’s never the people that should apologize, saying they are sorry. There is a romantic angle between August and Ona that, while not necessarily fully explored, is nonetheless touching and adds another layer to the narrative. The women think this sexual abuse is systemic and learned, with the elders themselves and their teachings primarily responsible. Nevertheless, August is burdened with shame and guilt as a man born and raised in this community.
Sarah Polley has a firm grasp on this material, which touches upon several thought-provoking conversations ranging from the differences in how people handle and cope with abuse (Mariche’s sister Mejal, played by Michelle McLeod, has taken up smoking and regularly suffers panic attacks), acceptance (there’s a transgender man among the ranks who is caring and wonderful towards the children, which feels like a brilliant “fuck you” to anyone frightened that transgender individuals are sex pests when men are the ones serial raping everyone in this village), whether or not they will be able to one day forgive their abusers, what age boys begin posing a danger to girls sexually and what to do with the boys they will be leaving behind, and of course, the pros and cons of each choice. She also makes the wise and sensitive decision to stick to the talking and only show the briefest of upsetting images when flashing back to the aftermath of abuse for these characters.
A tightly-coiled, sharply enlightening script allows for stageplay theatrics among the captivating ensemble. Sarah Polley also has the benefit of striking artistic design, intentionally dulling the colors of the environment while allowing the costumes themselves to pop off the screen vividly. Oscar-winning composer Hildur Guðnadóttir continues to stun, with a charged score bridging these well-articulated, dramatically potent debates. There is a sense that we could get to know each of these characters slightly more, but the upside is the thrilling pacing that eventually culminates with urgency while reaching a final decision.
Women Talking is also perhaps overtly blunt with its messaging, but maybe it needs to be for men to listen. And they deserve to be heard, especially due to Sarah Polley’s astonishing script, so everyone should let them talk. Every consequential dialogue flows with graceful intensity, with so many unforgettably piercing lines. There’s a part where the women learn celestial navigation, which involves making a fist similar to a revolutionary resistance pose. These resilient, intelligent, and capable women will have you raising your fist beside them.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com