Majorly impactful and expertly crafted, Sarah Polley’s Women Talking features the year’s best ensemble and one of the best scripts to produce one of the best films of the year.
In 2010, a group of women in an isolated Mennonite community experience an epidemic of sexual assaults. The elders initially dismiss these claims as hysteria or witchcraft, but when one of the perpetrators is caught in the act, he names names, leading to their arrest. The men of the community travel into town to bail out the men, while the women gather together to discuss what three actions to take: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave.
With a vote split between fighting or leaving, two families gather together to decide on behalf of the women. Matriarch Greta (Sheila McCarthy) is joined by her daughter Mariche (Jessie Buckley), who is being abused by her husband, and Mejal (Michelle McLeod), who suffers panic attacks. Fellow matriarch Agata (Judith Ivey) is joined by her daughter Salome (Claire Foy), who attacked the rapists, and Ona (Rooney Mara), a spinster who is pregnant following her assault. Mariche’s daughter Autje (Kate Hallett) and Agata’s granddaughter Netje (Liv McNeil) are also included. Formerly excommunicated teacher August (Ben Whishaw) keeps the minutes and is the only man involved in the discussion.
The women run the gamut of the reality of the situation. Some are incendiary, others calm and accepting, with others don’t know the answers. Salome speaks of murder, while Mariche worries on practical matters. Ona preaches forgiveness, but not in a traditional way. These conversations deepen the women’s understanding of the situation and how to approach the new world they wish to inhabit.
Oftentimes in films, especially heavy dramatic ones, filmmakers will zero in on a moment that encapsulates the general themes of the film. The scene or speech is given the gravity and patience it needs in order to emotionally pummel the audience. Following those scenes, the film has shifted into a new understanding. That is the entirety of Women Talking. Each scene is powerful and important. It’s almost exhausting.
Every scene is that heavy. There is an underlying tension to complete discussion before the group of men return, but the power comes from the recounting of the assaults. No assaults are actually seen, but each woman is shown the next morning following their attack. Some are missing teeth, some are bruised, some are bleeding. These attacks are not discriminatory. Women in their 70s to a four-year-old are all victimized. It’s punishingly brutal.
It should be brutal. Sexual assault is not something that should be rose-colored. That being said, while it does provide the film with a powerful message and dramatic tone, I wouldn’t characterize it as a pleasant film to watch. It’s important to watch, but not one I am excited to revisit.
The film is saturated in dark blues and sepias. Despite taking place in 2010, the sexual politics, religious fervor, and antiquated living gives the feeling of a world lost to time or convention. Half of the discussions seem reductive, due to the modern sensibilities we expect from a story about sexual assault. These women are trapped in a cycle of violence and obedience that they have no idea how to deal with something so monstrous.
It’s difficult to pick an actress to single out because they each have their own scenes of brilliance. Foy is the most exuberant because Salome is so angry, though it is not purely screaming about justice. She can’t believe everyone doesn’t share her anger and will not stand idly by. Mara is the voice of quiet calm and understanding, but with a gentle understanding and empathy without justifying the attackers’ actions. Buckley fills the role of odd acceptance. Mariche doesn’t necessarily enjoy her life, but it’s the life she has grown used to. Despite the abuse, she is accustomed to her life and doesn’t want to adjust. All three actresses play their roles beautifully.
Ivey and McCarthy both fill their roles well of being in charge of leading the group discussion, but feeling a measure of responsibility as well. Whishaw is a male audience surrogate, witnessing the discussions without actively participating. His wounded feelings towards the women about their abuse puts his own role in the forefront without making it directly about him.
Women Talking features a perfect ensemble and a powerful subject explored with the gravity necessary to convey the message. While never pleasant, it’s certainly is one of the best films of the year.
Women Talking is now playing in select theaters and expands wide on December 23rd