“A radical act of female imagination.”
That is how the men of the religious colony in Women Talking refer to the women’s accusations of sexual violence against them. It is an extreme act of psychological and spiritual abuse, compounding the physical horrors they commit at night. The phrase is the last gasp of gendered control that the men can exert before the women realize their collective nightmares are a horrifying shared reality.
For Sarah Polley, the phrase allows for intentional and searing reclamation. Women Talking, adapted from Miriam Toews’ novel, centers on a group of women tasked with determining their community’s future now that they know the truth about their abuse. With the men preoccupied out of town, they have 24 hours to respond. Will they or won’t they forgive the men who raped them? Do they stay and fight their abusers, or leave for a world they don’t understand? Amongst the group traversing such nuances are Salome (Claire Foy), Ona (Rooney Mara), Mariche (Jessie Buckley), Agata (Judith Ivey), and Greta (Shiela McCarthy), with August (Ben Whishaw), a male schoolteacher, taking the notes. (He is the only group member who can read and write, per the colony’s design.)
As the title suggests, Women Talking focuses on the lead collective’s discussions about their choices. There are no easy answers: every possibility has overwhelming consequences that will forever alter their lives. While the men’s return does grant urgency, Polley derives the film’s narrative potency from the intricacies of the debates. She stages the barn as a multi-generational political summit and healing space where anger and comfort frequently change hands. Every woman in the barn has a distinct voice that evades narrow definitions and expectations of where they’ll land in the conference. Even characters who seem steadfast in one position – like Salome in fighting back – will reconsider as they process the depth and breadth of their trauma in real time. The arguments may appear cyclical, but each retreat unveils something compelling and devastating about the world the women thought they knew.
Polley’s screenplay is a marvel, one of 2022’s best. Women Talking plays in the murkiest intersections of society’s cultural pillars – religion, sexuality, education, and class – but its lines are stunningly clear and beautifully written. Whether delivered with Clarie Foy’s righteous fury or Rooney Mara’s gentle resilience, the dialogue hits you square in the chest and rings in your ears long after the film ends. The women’s conversations are not easy, no matter how they’re spoken, nor should they be. (Another remarkable line: “Perhaps forgiveness can be, in some instances, confused with permission.”) Every word carries a lifetime of pain and broken promises, of self-doubt, and even resignation. What’s also clear is how deeply these women care about the lives that they’ve built together. Their words ache with the ramifications of each argument and negotiation, beating with a startlingly real pulse.
Women Talking’s rich script requires delicate, thoughtful direction, and Polley delivers exceedingly well. Her choices are steeped in empathy. She doesn’t shy away from the horrors but limits exposure to the aftermath, like blood-stained sheets being stripped from beds. Polley lets the women speak for themselves, holding them close in-frame as they recount their abuses and how it shapes their reasoning. She creates a visual space where the women can debate without distraction while maintaining a propulsive rhythm. The film’s cinematography is the most obvious reflection, and while it won’t be to everyone’s taste, it works thematically. The desaturation emphasizes the piercing content of the discussions and reflects the numbing helplessness the women are fighting. How does one see life in color when everything they’ve believed was a vicious lie? The color palette is an answer in and of itself.
The ensemble of Women Talking immerses themselves in the film’s dark shadows and delivers uniformly excellent performances. Rooney Mara has a challenging role as Ona, the de facto lead who appears passive but ultimately guides the debates. Mara’s performance is heartbreakingly delicate, beautifully capturing a bruised spirit that can extend grace and offer hope amidst misery. (Her scenes with the splendid Ben Whishaw are just lovely.) Where Mara is quiet strength, Foy is explosive rage, willing to risk her soul for vengeance against her abusers. Foy molds Polley’s words into barely-contained missiles of fury that might’ve sent another actor off the edge. Buckley’s Mariche, who believes the women should forgive the men, sits near the middle of the emotional spectrum. Buckley walks a mean tightrope of embracing her character’s meager privileges (and indulging in the few moments of levity through her exasperation with the proceedings) while conveying her bone-deep pain.
Women Talking is, indeed, a “radical act of female imagination.” Polley purposefully strips that phrase of its condescending misogyny and replaces it with the staggering and incalculable power of women speaking their truth. The process they go through isn’t easy; no process that requires grappling with and dismantling deeply-entrenched systems of oppression and abuse is. Women Talking shows us the value of the effort and how the gains greatly outweigh the losses. The women of the religious colony experienced a monumental change from a startingly simple act: talking.