Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival. United Artists Releasing releases the film in select theaters on Friday, December 23, with expansion to follow in January.
For God knows how long, the women of an isolated religious community (Mennonite in everything but name) have been drugged with cow tranquilizer and raped on a regular basis during the night. The women had been told they were being violated by ghosts, demons, or even Satan himself — punishment for their own improprieties — and they believed that lie until two young girls saw one of the rapists as he scurried back to bed across the field one night. Some of the men were arrested, and the ones who weren’t have gone into the city to arrange for bail. The women of the colony, unsupervised for a short period of time, have roughly 48 hours to decide what their future will be like.
Adapted from Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel of the same name with fierce intellect, immense force, and a visionary sense of how to remap the world as we know it along more compassionate (matriarchal) lines, Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking” never feels like it’s just 104 minutes of bonneted fundamentalists chatting in a barn, even though — with a few memorable, and sometimes very funny exceptions — that’s exactly what it is. Toews’ book could easily have been made into a play, but every widescreen frame of Polley’s film will make you glad that it wasn’t. She infuses this truth-inspired tale with a gripping multi-generational sweep from the very first line, which puts the violence in the rear-view mirror and begins the hard work of keeping it there.
“This story begins before you were born,” the film’s young narrator (Kate Hallett in the role of Autje) announces, passing these events down to a specific child while simultaneously framing them in the terms of a timeless moral fable — one set in an eternal yesterday that allows for an ever-possible tomorrow, despite the fact that it also belongs to a specific year in the not-too-distant past. As the story unfolds, Autje’s voice will ironically also be used in tandem with the fading sunlight outside the barn to help keep time and ratchet up the tension of the men’s threatened return. “We had 24 hours to imagine what kind of world you would be born into.”
The “we” she refers to is a voluble and unforgettable quorum comprising eight people from two different families who’ve been elected to break the tie in the colony-wide vote as to whether the women should leave or stay and fight. A third option of forgiving the men and returning to the status quo is embraced only by the taciturn and terrified Scarface Janz (producer Frances McDormand, in a symbolic role with little screen-time), and rejected due to lack of support.
The factions are neither plainly divided nor set in stone. The curious and ethereal Ona (Rooney Mara) has her head in the clouds, and discusses their predicament with a philosopher’s abstraction even though the baby in her belly — a souvenir from one of her unknown assailants — would seem to be a most concrete reminder of what’s at stake. Boiling over with impotent rage and consumed by the helplessness that comes with it, the abrasive Mariche (Jessie Buckley) provides a natural foil. Ona’s older sister Salome (Claire Foy) takes that anger to an even greater extreme, and insists that the women should exercise their divine wrath when the men return. But should her teenage son, on the cusp of becoming a man himself, be counted as one of their ranks?
Two elders are on hand to help guide these proceedings, with Ona and Salome’s mother Agata (Judith Ivey) radiating a sage pacifism and Mariche’s mother Greta (Sheila McCarthy) cloaking her wisdom in all manner of comic relief with some help from her horses Ruth and Cheryl. Hard as it might be to imagine, “Women Talking” is an upbeat and propulsive film cut with a sharp wit and a ready sense of humor, even if its characters are often laughing as hard as they wish they could cry.
Polley trusts in the implicit horror of a story in which every woman has been raped by their own brothers and fathers — including young Autje and her friend Neitje (Liv McNeil) — and never chooses to dwell on it more than circumstances allow, as even the most deserved morsel of self-pity is a luxury these women can’t afford at the moment. Their grief is so seamlessly enmeshed into their fear, fury, love, and hope that each reaction shot and camera move feels like a potential revelation. As one character says of the group’s first meeting: “It’s doomsday and a call to prayer. It’s both.”
The level of acting that makes that possible — that invites a biblically awesome degree of immensity into every close-up, and allows long dialogue scenes to unfold with the excitement and dexterousness of a pulse-pounding action movie — is so off-the-charts incredible that I’m tempted to ignore it altogether. Mara is rich and self-assured and full of surprises as an unexpectedly clear-eyed dreamer, while Buckley chips away at her character’s defensive callousness with such controlled precision that you can feel the exact moment she hits bone. Foy has the most animated role, and therefore also the most show-stopping moments, but the way she ratchets up the “You’re all a bunch of boys!” energy she brought to “First Man” is a sight to behold.
Ivey and McCarthy are ultimately the most valuable members of Polley’s ensemble cast, as they provide the movie its guiding spirit when all hope seems lost, but even the men are excellent. Ben Whishaw occasionally seems just the slightest touch over-affected as the bullied school teacher with a tragic backstory who sticks around to record the minutes of the women’s meeting, but his spirit is broken for good reason, and the too-tender-to-touch romance his character shares with Ona explains his simpering manner as a self-defense mechanism of its own.
Non-binary actor August Winter also shines in the role of Nettie/Melvin, the resident daycare leader whose recent transition across the colony’s gender line speaks to urgent questions about who the women should take with them if they decide to leave. What, in the minds of these religiously indoctrinated people — who until just a few days ago believed they were being raped by demons — defines a man? At what age do boys like Salome’s own son lose their innocence, and, perhaps even more pressingly, at what age does it become too late for them to relearn it?
Each knotted question unravels into another, as the women debate the difference between leaving and fleeing; between fear of the unknown and hatred of the familiar. The conclusions they reach are of vital importance, but Polley’s film is so extraordinary because of how it animates the process by which these characters think them through. It’s the thinking itself that sets them free, and paves the way for what the film’s opening text describes as “an act of female imagination.”
That act of imagination might have been even more galvanizing to witness had it not been muddied behind such musty and rotten digital cinematography. Polley and her usually excellent DP Luc Montpellier (“Take this Waltz”) have desaturated “Women Talking” in a way that suffocates its images in an artificial bleakness the movie otherwise avoids, sours the inner light so many of its shots exude, and sometimes make this beautiful movie a real eyesore to look at. It’s easy to appreciate why Polley and Montpellier were drawn to the look of Larry Towell’s black-and-white photography for inspiration, but the compromise they reach between lifelike color and monochrome desperately left me wishing that they had chosen one or the other.
But a film this focused on imagination can only be tarnished by the color palette of what we actually get to see, and “Women Talking” is such a visceral and commanding ode to the stories we tell ourselves — and the stories that women share with each other — that it’s destined to be more alive in our memories than it ever was before our eyes. Like dragonflies that migrate across such epic lengths that only their grandchildren survive to get where they’re going (cue Buckley’s Mariche rolling her eyes right out of her head), Polley’s film is playing the long game. It’s scouring deep within itself and along the horizon in search of the strength to envision a better tomorrow — one more dependent on compassion than a unilateral power that needs subjects over which it can prove itself. “Women Talking” believes that it’s out there, and that its characters might just be able to find it even if they don’t have a map. Even if they have to make their own map.
“Women Talking” premiered at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival. United Artists will release it in theaters on Friday, December 2.