Written and directed by Sarah Polley, based on a book by Miriam Toews that was based on a real-life incident, Women Talking is the heavy-hitting Best Picture nominee that I was least looking forward to watching. It felt like the subject matter would be too grim, and the presentation of the premise (summed up by the title, it is essentially just women talking for most of the runtime) didn’t cry out to me as something cinematic. But I have been wrong before, and I suspected that Women Talking would be worth the time and emotional investment, even if it wouldn’t be high up on my “best films of 2022” list.
I may have to wait until I one day muster the strength to revisit this, but the obvious “surprise” that I should reveal now is that Women Talking WOULD actually end up on my “best films of 2022” list. It’s an incredible and impressive work, and easily the best directorial work yet from Polley.
I should provide a bit more information about the plot. The setting is a small, isolated, religious community. The women in that community are horrified when it is revealed that many of them have been drugged and raped by the men. They have to gather together to discuss their options. They can stay and do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. And they only have limited time to decide, while the men of the community are away to help the rapists avoid any serious repercussions. The rest of the film shows the women debating two of the three choices, whether to stay or leave, and they are helped in their debate and discussion by one man who is still trustworthy and supportive.
Although showing a horrific situation specific to a certain setting, Women Talking uses the premise to inevitably show the difficulties that face any woman stuck in an abusive situation. The variety of viewpoints, all from women considering their own situations, show the full range of emotions and thoughts that would probably go through the mind of any one woman finding themselves in this awful situation.
The focus is very much on the dialogue here, in terms of both individual lines and exchanges between people of opposing views, and Polley helps herself no end by assembling a cast of talent who all rise to the challenging material. Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Rooney Mara, and Judith Ivey (my personal favourite of the nominal leads) are all given at least one moment to metaphorically punch viewers in the gut, Ben Whishaw is very lovely and sweet as the man helping them to gather their thoughts and make a final decision, and there’s a small role for Frances McDormand that allows her to make a strong impression with only a few minutes of screentime. Others worth mentioning are August Winter (playing someone transgender who provides yet another interesting nuance to the ongoing conversation), Michelle McLeod, Sheila McCarthy, and Shayla Brown, all helping to show more and more ways in which the lives of the women have been impacted over the years by the behaviour of the men.
As weighty and dialogue-heavy as this is, Polley excels at knowing how to treat the material onscreen. We’re shown the aftermath of horrific events, not the abuse itself, and there’s enough movement to stop it from feeling like a stage play, which could so easily have been the case. A lot of scenes are visually drab, as you might expect with a film about this kind of community, but moments of sunshine make infrequent appearances, providing welcome respite from the pain and sadness. I would like to read the Toews book one day, but this feels like a great achievement in how it has been moved from the page to the screen.
Women Talking may not be a film that you want to rush out to see, but it’s a strong and confident work of art. And you might find yourself considering a repeat viewing of it as soon as the end credits roll. I certainly did.
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