“Stories We Tell” filmmaker Sarah Polley assembled such a stellar ensemble for “Women Talking” that it’s tempting to throw them all into the Oscar race. It’s easy to see why the Indie Spirits gave the cast its Robert Altman Ensemble award. And the SAG Awards may well join the fray.
While long-overdue Rooney Mara (two nominations) is contending for Best Actress, her costars Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy, and Frances McDormand are all deserving of a Supporting nomination. But that’s not how it’s going to go. The most likely scenario has Buckley landing a slot, with Emmy-winner Claire Foy (“The Crown”) a possible second for “Women Talking.”
Out of this extraordinary group of actresses, here’s why Buckley pops. “Women Talking” assembles eight farm women in a hayloft during two days when their men have all gone to town and the clock is ticking: The men have told them to decide the future of their community before they return. These deeply religious, illiterate women debate staying — and continuing to be drugged and raped, along with even their youngest daughters. They must decide whether to accept continued sexual abuse, stay and fight with the men, or go and leave behind everything they’ve known — with the risk that they might not enter the kingdom of heaven.
What Polley does, with clarity and delicacy, is lay out each character’s thought process as they react to each other’s arguments. The horrifying debate unfolds in real time, as it was filmed. “She did a pass on this script from every single character’s perspective,” said Buckley over Zoom (during a break from the Toronto filming of Christos Nikou’s comedy “Fingernails”). “She had come to understand each person’s journey before we came, and then we collaborated with her on that. It was thrilling.”
At first, Buckley wasn’t sure she wanted to join the project. It’s Polley’s fourth film, which she adapted from the reality-based 2018 novel by Miriam Toews and produced by Oscar-winning producers McDormand (“Nomadland”) and Dede Gardner (“Twelve Years a Slave,” “Moonlight”). Still, the Killarney-born actress has her pick of smart movies. In the past few years she’s been in everything from Charlie Kaufman’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” HBO’s “Chernobyl,” musical “Wild Rose,” and Renee Zellweger biopic “Judy,” to most recently, Alex Garland’s horror mystery “Men” and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter,” which earned Buckley her first Academy Award nomination.
When she first read the script, and then the book, Buckley asked herself, “Like, how in the name of God are you going to make this? Where do you start?” she said. “It’s huge. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that was as huge. All the words and just the conversation of it, it was almost too much.”
After Buckley “did an awful audition on Zoom” (“as you always do on Zoom”), the actress leaned into wanting to work with Polley. The tipping point was watching Polley’s documentary “The Stories We Tell.”
“For me, that was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to do this,'” Buckley said. “It was the way she held so many heightened perspectives about her personal story and allowed everybody to have a voice in that.” She finally decided, “If there’s anybody who’s going to be able to tell this story, which is the most heightened experiment — our honest conversation — it’s her. Sarah puts herself in such a powerful vulnerability and leads from that place, and that doesn’t just stretch the cast, it stretches to the crew.”
Buckley plays Mariche, a pale andangry woman so entrenched in her openly abusive marriage that she can’t imagine living any other way. She resists, mightily, as the other women start to imagine a different future for themselves. “None of you will listen to reason!” says Mariche, who is not an easy character to like.
“This is a provocation of having this conversation and this debate with women,” said Buckley, “and about women in relationship to their world as they’ve always understood it, but also questioning the world that they might create beyond that understanding.”
The actress responded to Mariche “because I wanted to understand where that kind of pain was coming from, and that pushing away, but desperately wanting to belong, too?” she said. “I was drawn to her because she was probably harder to understand. There was so much internalized violence that was coming out of her and she had her secret hopes, but she’s learned to survive for this long in the reality that she’s always understood. To actually hope for something better in this life is almost scarier than hoping for something better in the next life. And yeah, she was sometimes a really hard, hard nut to carry around.”
As the women lay out their thoughts, what’s horrifying to contemplate is that they have never been given agency, nor been listened to. They’re not only making and following arguments about religion, loyalty, and devotion, but also uncovering and processing deep trauma.
Getting into these mindsets “required us all to unlearn what we’ve always known so that we could learn something new about ourselves,” said Buckley. “That in turn required an act of imagination. It requires you to step in your mind to a place where you can dream of something new for yourself.”
Buckley said the actors were there for each other, hour after hour, day after day. “The amount of generosity on set for each other was boundless,” she said. “We would be there 150 times for 150 takes, and everybody held the space for each other. And that really meant that you could just sit into the stream and let yourself be changed by these incredible people who stood before you. You’re performing to a big idea. There is something so huge about this whole conversation. You could have that intimacy with each other, but actually we’re reaching for something far bigger than the bounds of that attic.”
Indeed, the film can seem all-too contemporary. “This story is, unfortunately, timeless,” said Buckley. ‘This is about a legacy of something that needs to be broken. This story is about people taking agency to choose something else.”
“Women Talking” premieres in select theaters December 2 and nationwide December 25 from United Artists Releasing.