Women Talking (2022)

Sarah Polley | 1hr 44min

It is a tough promise to make that a film titled Women Talking will add up to more than the sum of its dialogue-heavy scenes, and yet Sarah Polley is no mere caretaker of weighty spiritual contemplations. Her screenplay is based on the 2018 novel of the same name, which itself was inspired by real events in the late 2000s, where eight men from an isolated Mennonite colony were discovered to have been drugging and raping dozens of their own women in their sleep over the course of five years. Any artistic reinterpretation of these devastating circumstances deserves more than just a straightforward recount, but rather something which cuts even deeper to the emotional and psychological reckoning of those affected. The text that Polley quotes from the novel and uses to open her film thus lays out her intentions.

“What follows is an act of female imagination.”

This wording is partially a nod to the blame that Mennonite elders laid at the feet of the “female imagination” when women started coming forward. The other part is a fantasy of what might have been possible had these women united in discussions over how to properly deal with their abusers. Polley recognises the need for a suspension of disbelief here, especially when considering the internalised misogyny that would have realistically been ingrained in these women by their ultraconservative, patriarchal culture. An early vote immediately rules out the option to ‘Stay silent’, leaving a tie between ‘Stay and fight’ and ‘Leave.’ With the majority of the community’s men away overseeing the bail of their arrested neighbours, the women are effectively given a deadline of two days to decide which course of action will be taken.

Polley puts together an impressive cast here that effectively brings layers of nuance to her screenplay’s conflicting moral arguments. Rooney Mara is cleverly cast against type as Ona, a beacon of hopeful optimism, while Claire Foy and Jessie Buckley both take turns furiously stealing scenes as Salome and Mariche, loaded with the rage of protective mothers and indignant wives. Men are scarce to be found in this ensemble, though Ben Whishaw still makes a sizeable impact as an ally tasked with taking the minutes of the meeting, while August Winter offers a compelling perspective as a trans male member of the community, disillusioned by its corruption and driven to take a vow of silence. If there is a knock against the film here, then it is a little disappointing to see how underused Frances McDormand is given her incredible screen presence, and neither does the retrospective voiceover by young actress Kate Hallett feel entirely integrated into the film beyond its pensive introduction and conclusion.

Despite these issues, Polley’s direction can’t be labelled anything less than confident. The first thing one will note about it is just how much she washes out colours from the fields, homes, and barns of this Mennonite colony, sinking her female characters into a desaturated despair that at times looks entirely black-and-white. Inside the hayloft where they meet in thoughtful deliberations, the darkness is only broken up by strips of sunlight pouring through the gaps between wooden slats, while every so often the giant hay door is opened onto a view of the grey farmlands just outside. The second thing which becomes apparent is just how precise Polley is with her blocking and camera movements, both of which lay out the divisions, commonalities, and idiosyncrasies contained within this ensemble.

It is especially in the recurring overhead shots of different women laying across blood-stained beds that Polley draws their stories together, revealing their shared experiences of a visceral horror. With the sparse floral patterns of their nightclothes matching their sheets, they often seem to disappear into their surroundings, overcome by the bleakness of their suffering. So too are they bound together by the wounds left on their bodies and minds, marking them with evidence of abuse that varies from person to person. An unhealed scar, a blinded eye, missing teeth, and bruises are the most visible injuries which garner empathy, though even among these women there is still a heavy stigma around mental illness. When Mejal is overcome by a crippling anxiety attack, Mariche lashes out, unfairly griping that she is making a bigger deal of her adversity despite having been hurt the same as everyone else. In this collection of complex characters though, Polley makes a fine point of the countless ways trauma can manifest in any given individual, and how it can shape them into entirely different people.

Quite significantly, the diversity of these experiences fuels the film’s open compassion, casting no judgement upon either side of the central debate. As Ona, Salome, Mariche, and others present their own perspectives, we often find Polley cutting away to their lives in the colony, rounding each of them out with backstories that justify their individual moral stances. There is strength in the damning silence of a mass exodus, just as there is power in a united battle for justice. So too though is there a universal uncertainty over what comes next, regardless of which path they choose. Women Talking is no plain retelling of historical facts or attempt at didactic message-making. Under Polley’s sensitive direction, it is a rich allegory of patriarchal exploitation at large, pushed to a terrifying tipping point and promised some form of drastic, unpredictable change.

Women Talking is currently playing in theatres.


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