Sarah Polley’s latest film “Women Talking” is a somber but compelling chamber drama focusing on a group of women who must make an important choice for not only themselves but also many other women in their isolated community. As they talk and discuss more and more within a short period of time, it becomes evident to them (and us) that their situation is much more complicated and devastating than it seems on the surface, and the movie steadily holds our attention as their discussion eventually is heading toward the powerful conclusion.
At the beginning, the movie, which is set in 2010, succinctly establishes the urgent circumstance surrounding the female members of an unnamed Mennonite community. In the middle of one night, one of the male members was caught when he attempted to break into the bedroom of a young woman, and this leads to a horrible revelation which shakes up the whole community. As a matter of fact, this deplorable guy is just one of many male rapists in the community, and many of women in the community are shocked and devastated to learn belatedly that some of them have been sexually assaulted for years.
While those rapists are arrested and then taken to a nearby town once the case is reported to local authorities, the women of the community come to face a difficult moment of choice. Most of the adult male members of the community soon go outside together for the raising the bail for the rapists, and the women of the community are instructed to decide on whether they should do next. They just simply maintain the status quo while showing some forgiveness or trying to fight against their small male-dominant system – or they may just have to leave the community once for all.
Because the following plebiscite does not lead to any definite conclusion, a small group of women gather together in a barn for deciding whether they and other women in the community should stay or not, and the mood soon becomes quite intense as several different opinions of theirs clash with each other. For example, Salome (Claire Foy), who is understandably quite angry about what happened to her four-year-old daughter, wants to fight against their unfair system, but Mariche (Jessie Buckley) prefers to forgive the rapists, and Ona (Rooney Mara) remains exceptionally calm and detached even though she has been stuck with a living reminder of what happened to her.
As these and other women in the group argue with each other, we come to gather more of what they and many other women in the community have accepted and endured in the name of tradition and religion. Because the women in the community are not allowed to be educated from the beginning, they do not know how to read or write at all, and their illiterate minds have also been limited by the boundaries of their small community. They are mostly expected to do whatever their men ask or demand, and one of them bitterly points out later in the movie that she has never asked her husband to do anything throughout her whole married life.
Despite the considerable difference in their opinions, the members of the group slowly converge toward their conclusion as reflecting more on the past and present of their life – and what should be really done for them as well as their next generation in the future. For instance, many of them cannot simply leave alone by themselves as mothers with children, and they naturally come to discuss a lot about whether they should leave along with their dear children – for preventing these young kids from being exposed more to the toxic masculine aspects of their community.
Their discussion is incidentally observed and recorded by August (Ben Whishaw), a male schoolteacher who was once in the community before he got excommunicated along with his family. As a decent guy who really respects and cares a lot about the women in the community, he positions himself at the fringe of the group while doing or speaking as less as possible, but he gives some thoughts and opinions if that is requested by the group, and we also come to sense more of his private feelings toward one of the group members.
Polley’s screenplay, which is based on the novel of the same name by Miriam Toews, deliberately feels theatrical as having a bunch of main characters talking a lot within one limited space, but it gradually fleshes them out as they interact with each other more and more along the story, and Polley and her crew members did a commendable job of generating a sense of isolation and urgency surrounding the main characters. As the cinematography by Luc Montpellier fills the screen with palpable stark beauty, the sparse but sensitive score by Hildur Guðnadóttir effectively accentuates several dramatic points in the film, and that is a nice change for Guðnadóttir compared to her relentlessly gloomy Oscar-winning score for “Joker” (2019).
Polley also draws the excellent ensemble performance from her stellar main cast members. While Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, and Jessie Buckley are showier in compassion, Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod, and Frances McDormand, who also serves as one of the producers of the film, have each own moment to shine, and Ben Whishaw subtly holds his own small place without drawing much attention to himself.
Overall, “Women Talking” is another excellent work from Polley, who previously impressed us a lot with the unexpectedly graceful thoughtfulness and delicate sensitivity of her first directorial work “Away from Her” (2007). Although it is a bit too reserved and restrained in terms of storytelling, its haunting female drama resonates a lot with the ongoing #MeToo era of our time, and I admire Polley’s deft direction and a bunch of good performances from her wonderful performers. Women surely begin to not only speak up but also talk and bond together these days, and, as many of you know, they will certainly not do nothing.
Pingback: My Prediction on the 95th Academy Awards | Seongyong's Private Place