Sarah Polley delivers a powerfully stimulating thought piece
Analyzing and debating about patriarchal societies and how we should consider our role and options within them is a dense and unwieldy subject that would prove intimidating for many. This is not the case for Sarah Polley and her adaptation of Miriam Toews novel about the real-life Mennonite Community in 2010, titled Women Talking (2022).
Women Talking is inspired by the true story of a Canadian Mennonite community in Bolivia, which in 2010 saw representatives of the women in the community gather and decide whether they should leave or stay. They were continuously raped and repressed by men in the community, and the breaking point arrives with this self-reflective debate. We see how the calm and thoughtful Ona (Rooney Mara) prods the group with intriguing questions, how the angry Salome (Claire Foy) seeks revenge, Mariche (Jessie Buckley) is simply enraged by the debate of it all, while the only male present, August (Ben Wishaw) quietly takes the minutes of the meeting and rejects being included in the debate.
Women Talking is directed by Sarah Polley who also solely adapted the book. The actress-turned director brings a focused yet delicate balance to the film. Polley is aware of the bristling subject she is delving into, but she threads the initial narrative with allusions of patriarchal society at large with a transcendent deftness. Women Talking takes its time delving into each subject: of blame, responsibility, atonement, and forgiveness. There is no blanket statement or jarring contrasts, but instead questions and perspectives are presented with viewers gently guided towards the Polley’s conclusive statements. The film’s title accurately predicts that it is women doing this reflection, and their gaze doesn’t rest on simply condemning their treatment, but delves deeper into understanding why men have become so predatory and what potential paths and hopes there are going forward.
Polley is able to make Women Talking be both intellectually stimulating while not elitist or alienating. The narrative of the women deciding whether to escape this oppressive colony or not works well as a surface-level story, with the second reading of societal critique and meditation coming through as a neat parallel. This balance is achieved thanks to the beautiful screenplay, whose every other line of dialogue you’d want crochet and hung in your kitchen. The steady and unhurried pace also helps in digesting the film’s bigger themes.
However, Women Talking and its stage-like feel wouldn’t work as well without a cast that intimately worked with the script and Polley. Mara and Wishaw are powerfully understated with quiet and internal roles that forgive the showier elements one would expect in these types of dramas. Buckley and Foy do get these more explicit roles and knock it out of the park. Polley has a deep trust in her cast and has many of them deliver emotional speeches in unbroken long takes. Lesser-known character actors such as Judith Ivey and Sheila McCarthy are also standouts as renovating elders.
In the end, Women Talking is a moving and stimulating watch that will have you long pondering how to evolve and facilitate a way out of today’s patriarchal institutions and systems. Lead by a magnificent cast and with an all-encompassing creative vision from Polley, Women Talking proves to be one of the viewings and thought pieces of the year.