Women Talking (2022)

Written and directed by Sarah Polley

A throwback talkie that feels a little light despite its dense script, Sarah Polley’s Women Talking sees a group of persecuted women discuss their options in standing up to the menfolk in the secluded religious colony they live in. The discussion is based on an insane predicament, seen with 21st century western eyes: the women are routinely drugged and raped by the men of the colony, and have until now turned the other cheek, trapped in the religion that’s interpreted by the same men, as the women are not taught to read nor write. 

Their brothers, husbands, fathers molest them and their adolescent daughters, but they must bear it, because forgiveness is divine after all, and to leave would mean leaving the one place where the lord will come find them and carry them off into heaven come judgment day. Stay in a world where you’re a beast of burden, child-bearing, and sexual gratification? Leave for someplace you’ve never been taught to exist and possibly miss out on the kingdom of heaven? Or fight the bastards, come death or deliverance? Pull up a chair, they’re going to hash it out. 

These women who have no formal schooling assemble like a forum in ancient Greece, and they leave no stone unturned, questioning existential, religious, physical matters with surprising eloquence and insight. The questions are hefty and immediate: Would a benevolent god allow this fate? Can this omnipotent being really not locate them outside of the colony? Does religion not ask them to forgive? Are the men not victims as well being brought within this toxic patriarchal society? While cooler heads deliberate, the immediately aggrieved women, those whose violations are fresh, take a more old testament approach: fight fire with fire and fight them for the colony, loser departs. 

It makes for an eponymous discussion and Polley’s tightrope act in keeping this film engaging throughout when there’s nothing on screen but the writing and the performances is excellent  screenwriting. In a world living on a popular cinematic diet of superhero-branded ketchup packets, this is different gravy. They simply don’t make them like this anymore, with films like Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men its closest sibling. The action is driven forward by the exchange of ideas, uncovering of trauma, and compassion, compassion, compassion. 

It almost becomes a little too much, this level-headed discussion, and the tension never really materializes. It’s gentle, oh so gentle, this meticulous intellectual labor, and the outcome seems predetermined, an exercise for the sake of the exercise. The only real question is how much they’ll turn the other cheek.  

The ensemble cast are a match for Polley’s tome of a script, and in service of the above discussion, they become archetypes of their respective positioning: Rooney Mara is Ona, a blithe weathervane in the middle of it all, certain only of the love she carries for her sisters in suffering. Jessie Buckley is Mariche, a frustrated pragmatist whose intense anger at their lot is matched by her fear of the massive unknown their future would be outside of the colony. Buckley’s jawline juts out like jabs as she makes her points. Claire Foy plays Salome, who wants to burn everything down for what an assailant did to her preschool-aged daughter. Perhaps the most relatable of the bunch. Sheila McCarthy and Judith Ivey as an older generation coming to terms with the fact that their daughters need not suffer like they did. 

Whatever the constellation, the chemistry among players is undeniable and together, they lift Polley’s screenplay. Salome’s anger at the current moment meets its match in Ona’s belief there’s a better future waiting for them, and Mariche’s cynical mother folds neatly into Judith Ivey’s Agatha, a tempered matriarch who’s walked in Mariche’s shoes many times over. The couplings, which switch around often and suddenly, push and pull at each other, to create a sort of dance which moves everything forward. 

Women Talking, despite its glib title, is incredibly sincere in its messaging and is as conflict-averse as its characters. There are no real villains here; they remain off-screen. The sole focus is on this group of women whose plight and expressions of dehumanization, vilification and psychological entrapment are easy to read into as allegories for women everywhere who have been told they’re second-class and denied intellectual and physical agency in our patriarchal society. 

Women Talking is an actor’s film and a writer’s film. It showcases the skills of both collaborators and Polley’s skillful writing is matched by her troupe of actors who manage to not only shine as individuals but augment the work of their scene partners as well. Where Women Talking perhaps falters is that it never realizes the stakes, which are considerable. The threat of their persecutors is only seen from afar and in the wounds they leave upon our protagonists, who bear it with a grace that’s hard to fathom. 

Despite this showcase of writing and acting excellence, the film almost feels like a philosophical seminar that deals in hypotheticals rather than the grave predicament it really is. There’s that devastating oomph missing as well as the subsequent elation to undo it. 

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