Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking” sort of fell through the cracks of many awards conversations near the end of 2022 thanks to a very limited theatrical release and a box office swarming with other major contenders.
Thankfully, that’s about to be remedied with a wider theatrical release which will allow more people to see the movie I, and many other critics, named one of the best of the year when we completed our annual Top 10 lists.
So, what is about “Women Talking” that’s kept critics talking about the film for nearly a month now, waiting for a wider audience to have the chance to experience the story? There are many elements worth praising, but in the end the core of the film comes down to an unforgettable ensemble of actors, and their willingness to be raw, real, and open over the course of nearly two hours of intense, often unexpected conversation.
Based on the novel by Miriam Toews, the film follows a group of women who must make a fateful, possibly dangerous choice that will determine their collective future. In the outside world, it’s 2010, but in the secluded religious colony where the women live, the world feels much older, and more brutal. After a series of clandestine nighttime rapes by the men in the colony leave them all reeling, the women take it upon themselves to determine their future. While the men are away in town dealing with the police, they gather in the barn to decide whether they will stay in the colony and resist the power of the men who rule over them, or leave forever and risk what they’ve been taught is excommunication and, therefore, lack of entry into Heaven.
When a colony-wide vote results in a tie, it’s up to this small group of women to decide for all of them, and face the consequence of either choice.
Within the group are several key personalities who each take a stand for their own perspective. Ona (Rooney Mara) is a bright-eyed reformer, while Salome (Claire Foy) is a vengeful would-be warrior, and Agata (Judith Ivey) is a peacemaker among the group.
Then there’s Mariche (Jessie Buckley), who’d rather forgo both choices in favor of simply staying and asking for forgiveness. And, watching over them all as the resident taker of minutes, there’s August (Ben Whishaw), the colony schoolteacher who’s seen the outside world and might be the only man among them who wants to give the women an opportunity to see it too.
Though there’s certainly plenty of dramatic tension at work in the story, particularly toward the end when the ticking clock starts to creep up on the women, “Women Talking” is a very apt title for what you’ll see in this film. The meat of the story is this group of women sitting together in a barn loft, debating the advantages and disadvantages of each decision before them, and sometimes getting heated as their worldviews clash and the consequences of either decision loom large. Polley, who also adapted Toews’ novel for the film’s script, has a clear grasp of the dramatic challenges posed by this format, which could almost just as easily be a stage play as a feature film.
So, she intercuts the discussions with lyrical, heartbreaking musings on the way the women have been forced to live, many of them or their entire lives, and frames the debate itself around the promise the world holds for these women if they only have the strength to go and reach for it.
It’s a beautifully shot film thanks to cinematographer Luc Montpellier, and Hildur Guonadottir’s tense, often hypnotic score adds to the sense of rising tension and rising potential in equal measure.
But of course, none of this works without the cast, and it’s here that it becomes clear that “Women Talking” really soars on the strength of its ensemble.
Though some of the women get a bit more screen time than others, and the narrative shifts to accommodate certain key perspectives, the film stands as a true ensemble piece in which Mara, Buckley, Foy, Ivey, Whishaw, and the rest of the cast are able to shine while never competing for the spotlight.
It’s hard to pick a lead in the film, because everyone is feeding off everyone else, lending more emotional power to an already devastating story.
So yes, “Women Talking” is one of 2022’s best films, and if you didn’t get a chance to see it yet, you should take full advantage of its wide release to remedy that. Polley and her cast have built something beautiful and heartbreaking here, something that will linger in your mind long after the credits roll.
‘Women Talking’ is in theaters everywhere January 20.