• Fri. Apr 12th, 2024

Review: Women Talking

ByColby Payne

Feb 27, 2023

CW: sexual assault

Sarah Polley’s Women Talking is a gripping, nuanced tale of grief and rage.

At first glance, Sarah Polley’s Women Talking is as simple as its title suggests – much of the film’s runtime focuses simply on women talking. Polley’s direction and the stunning performances, though, illustrate the film’s tale of grief and rage with a level of tension that conveys the urgency of discussions around patriarchy and sexual violence. 

Adapted from Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel of the same name, which was in turn inspired by real-life events at a Mennonite community in Bolivia, the film follows women living in an isolated Mennonite community who are repeatedly drugged and raped in their sleep. When the community’s male population leaves for a brief period to bail their compatriots from jail, the women decide whether to stay and forgive the men, stay and fight for increased freedoms, or leave the colony and risk forfeiting their right to heaven.

Though the film ultimately depicts the women following through on one of the above options, it does not depict any of the three as more immediately valid than the others. The women’s perspectives on each possibility are nuanced, and their perspectives regularly shift. Anger is a dominant emotion at play in the film, and Polley gives the women’s anger – towards the men, towards one another, and towards God – ample room for exploration. While the women in the film lack an education, Polley does not equate a lack of education with a lack of intelligence, and the women’s religious upbringing provides a rich philosophical backing for their discussions. 

An unexpectedly crucial element of the film is the relationship between Ona (Rooney Mara) and August (Ben Wishaw), who was born into an excommunicated family but returned to the colony as a schoolteacher. Their inability to act upon their feelings is wrenching, as is August’s despair as he tries to counteract the patriarchal values instilled in the colony’s boys. Mara’s and, in particular, Wishaw’s performances hold a raw tenderness that positions the pair at the heart of the film. However, all the performances, from its stars to its lesser-known actors, are uniformly terrific.

As the film progresses and the threat of the men’s return looms over the women’s discussions, the tension increases to thriller-like heights. While criticisms of the film have suggested that the dialogue-heavy film might be better suited to the stage, Polley’s handling of the film’s climax and conclusion could only be achieved in the cinematic medium, though specifics are difficult to discuss without revealing the result of the women’s decision. Her selective use of flashbacks, too, is deployed for maximum emotional impact at key moments in the women’s discussions.

As a whole, Women Talking argues that issues of patriarchal violence do not provoke simple emotions and do not hold simple solutions. In her film, Polley offers space to explore these themes, and the affected women, in all their complexity and nuance.

Image “Rooney Mara” by Nivrae is licensed under CC BY 2.0.