“Do nothing. Stay and Fight. Leave.” These three phrases represent the tagline that graces the artwork for Sarah Polley’s riveting Women Talking.
Grace. Now, that’s a fascinating way to describe the story Polley’s script lays out in front of us. Based on the novel of the same name by Miriam Toews, Women Talking is simplistic in its goal and complicated on the path to get there. Still, Polley tells the true story of the women of the Manitoba Colony in Bolivia with such grace and the fierce passion that it made my Best 10 of 2022.
The women of a Mennonite colony meet secretly as they decide their fate, where the male population brutalizes, maims, or otherwise degrades the women. Themes of degradation, lack of self, failure or strength in faith, and questioning every decision come to a boiling point.
Women Talking would be an intense film from its director’s point of view alone; the ensemble is the story. Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Frances McDormand, and Ben Whishaw star, each actor a part of a chorus of voices demanding a better life than the one they lead today.
Polley’s sharp dialogue and the cast’s ability to convey feelings forcefully, quietly, mockingly, and accusingly, a catharsis occurs; there is concern over the decision, but each woman accepts what must be done. These themes are not endemic to the time; they are every bit as real today. The story’s universality in an age of protest portrays the debate in a verbally dramatic, non-violent way.
Opinions fly. The women differ; they agree coming to a consensus is not mutual. What they must solve amidst their crisis of faith is to decide their course of action. Polley set the story in nearly one location – a hay loft and one with a curious yet non-descript, optimistic design. The setting is open-air, on the second level doesn’t suggest that the women are above the men but that their purpose is for the greater good of the community. The women, young and old, freely share their opinion as August Epp (Whishaw) records their debate for posterity. Curiously, August is an outcast from the colony. As an educated man amongst unworldly women seeking a better future for themselves, he had an opportunity to build a better future for himself and possibly the male children in the community as a teacher. Though he is silenced for offering suggestions or opinions on more than one occasion, he understands his place.
Within the confines of the loft, the women’s heated debate, guided by each of their own experiences, becomes visceral. The depictions of past events are not explicitly described, but the resultant reactions are. Each actress is strong, injecting humanity within the seriousness and laughter. There’s a release within the women as they reach their decision, and the debate is not without merit as the story flirts with the religion they practice and the questioning of the unknown path that lies before them; they become a force to be reckoned with.
By setting Women Talking in nearly one location, Polley and cinematographer Luc Montpellier maximize their interior and exterior coverage; the widescreen lenses give the debate breathing room, the catharsis to discuss and decide. That this has not been adapted to the stage is surprising, yet it was refreshing to see such a story unfold dynamically.
Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score guides us throughout the movie with a luscious guitar-driven score from Skúli Sverrisson. His strings and Guðnadóttir’s score carry us through the thick and thin of the debate and add to the colony’s broken vitality, the women’s struggles, and their reactions.
At the opening credits, the camera slowly follows the women before panning right, the women gently falling out of focus as the camera trains on the fields, and this line appears on the screen:
What follows is an act of female imagination.
Women Talking is indeed imagination. Yet it is real. Sarah Polley has created two different fabrics within the story’s framework: the ongoing debate and the events that set it in motion. It is a significant release for those who have felt captive and the need to be recognized, not as property, but as human beings with feelings, reactions, and, ultimately, the catharsis of finally being identified.
104 minutes, PG-13, Orion Pictures/United Artists Releasing/Plan B Entertainment