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Women Talking TIFF.jpg

TIFF 2022 Review: Sarah Polley’s Stunning ‘Women Talking’ Tackles Female Trauma and Quiet Power

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | September 12, 2022 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | September 12, 2022 |

Women Talking TIFF.jpg

For many years, an isolated community of Mennonites has been under siege. Women wake up covered in bruises and blood with no memory of what happened to them as they slept. It soon emerges that a group of men have been systematically drugging and raping practically every girl and woman in their sight. As the men of the village leave to pay the offenders’ bail, the women gather together to make a choice: to stay and forgive their rapists; to stay and fight for change; or to leave and begin anew.

Adapted from the wonderful novel by Miriam Toews, writer-director Sarah Polley has taken upon a mighty task with Women Talking. Toews’ novels are bound together by their variations on common themes. They’re typically focused on Mennonite or ex-Mennonite women, and they often feature people living in the aftermath of familial trauma and suicide. This time, she took inspiration from a real-life incident in South America, but the uniting ideas of her bibliography are still here. Now, however, the agony is collective rather than singular. They have all experienced the same barbaric fate. How they deal with it changes.

In the barn where several families meet to make the ultimate decision for their community, those clashes come to life. Ona (a quietly excellent Rooney Mara), pregnant by one of her rapists, is optimistic while playing a noble devil’s advocate to each point raised. Salome (Claire Foy) does not bother to conceal her fury. Mariche (Jessie Buckley) is worn down by trauma and sees no way out for herself or her children. Mejal (Michelle McLeod) feels more pain over being gaslit about her attacks than anything else. Whatever decision they make seems like doom in some way. If they don’t forgive the rapists, as demanded by the other men in the community, they will be cast out of their homes and denied entrance into Heaven. If they try to fight, they risk further pain.

As the title would suggest, Women Talking is an appropriately dialogue-driven affair. Words feel like all they have. Unable to read or write, they ask August (Ben Whishaw as essentially the Mennonite Paddington in his display of utter earnestness), the only man they trust, to take the minutes. Their discussion is as much one of philosophy as it is practicality, in that they are preparing to create a new world for themselves from scratch. The divides of each choice are not clean-cut. It’s a credit to Polley’s adaptation of a tricky book (both narratively and stylistically) that these conversations are imbued with warmth, prickly wit, and a true sense of multi-generational pain. There are even jokes amid the bleakness. Laughter comes when it’s most needed and least expected.

Mercifully, Polley also has enough trust in her material and universally excellent ensemble to convey the horror of their lives without resorting to seediness. We see flashes of the aftermath of these attacks and we hear from one as they talk to their rapist (not seen on-screen) and reveal themselves to be a victim of incest. We do not dwell on the attacks. The women are forced to do that enough as it is, and the glimpses of their trauma that they allow their friends, their sisters, their mothers to see are painfully potent enough. In one moment, Salome admits that her daughter requires antibiotics, and it takes a few moments for you to realize why.

It’s not hard to see how this film attracted such a stunning array of actresses, both big stars and beloved characters alike. Judith Ivey and Sheila McCarthy, who improve everything they’re in, provide the guiding elder spirit that helps ground their speculation in reality. Claire Foy and Jessie Buckley get the more traditionally ‘grabby’ roles, for lack of a better word, mostly because they get to yell. They are, of course, great. Foy ratchets up her emotions as she begins to seriously consider murdering her attackers. Buckley’s cynicism is evident, devoid of patience for even the smallest displays of earnestness, and as her steely exterior is chipped away, Buckley’s immense control over Mariche’s agony engulfs the screen. Rooney Mara is the clear-eyed moderator of the group, someone who has managed to retain her genuine love for others after being repeatedly brutalized. With Whishaw, we see her light up the scene, eager for happiness but never naive. If there were any justice, there’d be real awards attention on Mara. Alas, her willingness to eschew bombast in favor of convincing silence means she won’t.

If there is any real fault with Women Talking, it’s in its muddy cinematography. Luc Montpellier, Polley’s regular DP, has desaturated the screen, aiming for a kind of sepia tone that mostly looks as though the bulb isn’t working in the projector. It makes those scenes in the barn where they converse seem less claustrophobic and more a strain on the eyes. This might be a movie driven by words but we could still stand to look at what’s going on, especially with this cast firing on all cylinders.

Still, I cannot recommend Women Talking highly enough. It’s an ode to women’s power, the beauty of storytelling, and a truly optimistic view of a way through life after the most abhorrent struggles. It’ll be a hard sell to many but I think it’s worth it. Sarah Polley doesn’t make films very often but this is proof that everything she makes should be welcomed with open arms. Here is a filmmaker of deft talent and sensitivity and we could use a few more of those right now.

Women Talking is currently playing at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. It will premiere in cinemas on December 2.