As an artist, Sarah Polley’s work has always sought to entertain, challenge, and move us, often at the same time. She’s a master of dialogue, blowing up the singular to feel universal, and to incisively explore the root of human connections, without sacrificing the artistry of filmmaking, storytelling, and entertainment. Her latest film, Women Talking, recently nominated for two Academy Awards, is both her most accessible and most unsettling/challenging to date. It tackles unspeakable horror and expands upon it to reach an empathy, beauty, and truth about human nature.
In 2010, the women of an isolated Mennonite colony learned that they had all been having the same dream: that of being unable to move, accosted by shadowy figures in the night. Despite bruises, scars, and even pregnancies, the leaders of the village informed the women that these were figments of their imagination, or perhaps the work of demons tormenting them for their sins. It was soon discovered that a group of men had been using cow tranquilizer to sedate and rape every woman in the village, aged three to eighty, for years, and that the town leaders had been covering for them to keep the peace. Even after the truth was revealed, the leaders ordered the women to forgive their assaulters, at risk of excommunication and damnation to Hell.
Women Talking (and the novel by Miriam Toews the film is based on) uses this true story as a launchpad for a wider discussion on religion, gender equality, faith, love, and forgiveness. In the aftermath of the order, the women of the village hold a vote on their three options: concede and forgive the men, leave the colony and risk damnation, or fight back and kill their oppressors (which will definitely result in damnation). With the latter two options ultimately tied in final voting, two families lock themselves in the barn to debate, reflect, and pray – one consisting of Agata (Judith Ivey), Ona (Rooney Mara), Salome (Claire Foy), and another consisting of Greta (Sheila McCarthy), Mariche (Jessie Buckley), and Mejal (Michelle McLeod).
From the very first image, Polley envelops her viewers with the power of her writing and directing. While away from Hollywood for almost a decade due to a traumatic injury, she shows here she hasn’t lost a single step, building upon the legacy already established in works such as Stories We Tell (one of the best documentaries of all time), Away From Her and Take This Waltz. The dialogue here just flows with both an authenticity and a heft that only the truly great poets can accomplish, like 12 Angry Men (the most straightforward comparison), or My Dinner With Andre, or any film involving dialogue-heavy debates of import.
Polley understands that these are real characters talking about traumatic, hefty issues that are both singular and universal in their traumatic reality. It’s the type of dialogue we don’t see in film anymore: thematically rich and filled with warmth, weight, and intellect, rarely ever misstepping in its delicate ballet. These are women who have gone through unspeakable horrors, trying to develop agency in a life where they’re consistently denied it. Their ideas are messy and half-formed, needing to be spoken aloud to their sisters to be completed, and hearing them do so is masterful to behold.
Not only that, but thanks to Polley’s characterizations, the women feel honest as well. There’s the pious, loving elders trying to react with grace and (in lieu of forgiveness), healing. There’s Mejal, suffering from PTSD, an illness neither known or understood by the members of this isolated village, and trying to adapt accordingly. Salome and Mariche react with violent, angry outbursts, an anger that, as more information is revealed, feels not only justified, but necessary. All of these characters are honest in their conception, real in their dialogue, and human in both their accomplishments and shortcomings. And it is all a testament to Polley’s abilities as a writer.
Thankfully, Polley is equally adept as a director as she is a writer. Every decision is carefully, meticulously planned, filled with religious and spiritual imagery throughout. From an opening washing of feet to a closing Biblical allusion that will not be spoiled, Polley both celebrates and criticizes the nature of organized religion with her filmmaking. In some ways, she celebrates the grace and beauty of the world that can be found through prayer and faith. In others, she criticizes the way forgiveness is weaponized by those in power to oppress and traumatize the powerless into submission.
For this very reason, almost the entire third act is some of the year’s best filmmaking, including the most powerful performance of “Nearer My God To Thee” not set on the Titanic and a conclusion that sends chills down one’s spine. Even the much-maligned color palette (all shot with dulled colors, a step above sepia) works to the film’s benefit, evoking a world violently shifted to color, yet still void of the joy they’ve desperately searched for. Every detail has been perfectly planned by Polley, who emerges from this film as one of the sharpest writer-directors in the business today.
There are, unfortunately, a few quibbles that exist in the screenplay and Polley’s otherwise-immaculate direction that hold the film back from true greatness. One of the greatest blunders a director can make is cutting away from an anecdote or monologue to play out the story in real time. There’s a famous story about how Jonathan Demme was planning on showing the lamb-slaughtering scene in Silence of the Lambs before deciding that Jodie Foster’s acting was powerful enough. Here, Polley consistently cuts away from the group’s meaningful monologues (especially those by McCarthy) to act out the stories on display. Also hindering the film are the more forced attempts at levity within the film’s tapestry.
While humor in a film like this is needed, and many instances work incredibly well – including a moment where McCarthy makes self-aware references to her homespun parables – several moments feel not only wedged into the picture, but also contradictory to the characters that have been established. One moment sees one of the teenage participants pretending to commit suicide by leaping from the barn’s window into a hayloft below. The women find this hysterical; personally, this seems like a joke in poor taste that no child would make and no adult in this situation – let alone a Mennonite community – would find amusing.
Still, these are merely speed bumps on the film’s path to a stirring, emotional conclusion. And they are easy to ignore on the backs of the terrific performers making up the ensemble. It’s important to start with Mara, the film’s lead, and the unspoken leader of the group. Mara’s performance is sort of an everyman, sitting quietly in the corner and guiding conversations without overplaying her hand or expressing the conclusion she wishes to reach. It’s a subtle performance from an actress known for playing things big, and it’s a major reason the film works.
Outside of Mara, the best performances come from Foy and Buckley, the two fiercest and most fiery of the women. Sure, they benefit from big, hefty monologues, but it’s what they show under the surface – the reason for their passion – that makes these performances something to remember. Perhaps the best moment of acting in the film comes when Buckley reveals a history of domestic violence, which has fueled her attitude towards the entire procedure throughout. It’s moments like these that remind viewers why she’s arguably the greatest actress working today.
Other great performances come from the more seasoned veterans. Shelia McCarthy is a scene-stealer as Greta, one of the matriarchs who loves to speak in eloquent parables. Meanwhile, Judith Ivey has a warmth as Agata, who feels equally angry at what has occurred, yet hides a guilt over the trauma and failures she’s passed on to her daughters. August Winter has a significant role as Melvin, while Frances McDormand (a producer on the film) cameos as a woman unwilling to forego her place in Heaven even for the sake of her own safety.
In fact, the only performance that doesn’t quite work is Ben Whishaw, a young man in the village capable of reading and writing, whose empathetic nature makes him the sole man the women can view as an ally, and whose gift as a writer makes him an ideal minute-taker for the debates. Whishaw’s performance is a bit of a mixed-bag; for most of the film, he makes the decision to play things coy and impish. He’s blank behind the eyes, and somewhere between a wet blanket and a cock-eyed optimist, which fits neither the character nor the attitude of the rest of the film. However, he also possesses a poignant monologue in the film’s final act, and Whishaw delivers it so earnestly, so beautifully, that it justifies the entire performance. I just wish that energy had been on display throughout.
Women Talking is one of the year’s most masterful displays of filmmaking. It’s a hard watch, to be sure. And it’s not without its flaws. Yet Polley is such a gifted writer and director, it is hard to care. This is one of those special films where the writing, the directing, and the ensemble all meet at the center of a delicate Venn diagram, giving viewers an intelligent, heartfelt treatise on the world at large, filled with vibrant characters, vivid monologues, and carefully crafted, meaningful storytelling. It is one of the year’s best, and one that audiences should not miss.
Women Talking is available on Amazon Prime through Monday, March 13th; after that, it will be available both on VOD and in select theaters nationwide