In a year of everythings everywhere, false chronicles of handfuls of truths, and unbearable weights of massive talent, it takes quite something to take the title of 2022’s boldest, most striking film title with just two words. Yet, that is the power possessed by Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, a title that makes an unabashed promise in a cinematic landscape that still often seeks to have women quiet down and delivers entirely. This is a film all about women talking, and it’s only when it strays from that central idea that it starts to fall down, a solid awards film undone by a shaky finale and lacklustre visuals.
Adapting the novel by Miriam Toews, Polley takes us to a world mostly unseen on screen, that of a remote Mennonite colony somewhere in middle America. There’s very little time wasted in this early stretch, as we learn that the women of the colony have been being repeatedly drugged and raped by the men – sometimes their own family members – before being told that either Satan did it or that they simply imagined their own injuries. We meet the women just as they’ve caught one of the men in the act, prompting a mass confession and series of arrests, leaving the women alone in the colony for a day or two to decide what to do before the men return after their bail is posted.
A vote is held between three options, but the results are close, leaving it up to a selection of the more influential women to finalise a plan, the meetings held in a large hayloft – the story is set in 2010, but within the colony it’s essentially 200 years earlier. Option one is to stay and forgive the men, represented in the hayloft by the battered Mariche (Jessie Buckley), whose pain, rage, and fear has calcified into a sharp anger at the other women, too tired of the endless abuse to be able to see a life free of it. Option two is to stay but fight the men and create a new order, fiercely backed by Salome (Claire Foy), who wants revenge now and safety for her daughter in the future. Finally, the pragmatic and pregnant Ona (Rooney Mara) wishes for the women and children to pack up and leave the colony entirely before the men get back, starting a new life somewhere safer and fairer.
It’s a relatively stagy premise, but one brought to powerful and shocking life by Polley’s mostly excellent dialogue, delivered by a series of strong actors. The debate in the hayloft fizzes back and forth, brutal traumas discussed frankly and without sentimentality and the intelligent script makes it clear that, though the women are kept illiterate, the men’s attempts to dull their spark have failed, and will always do so.
The roles aren’t all quite equal, though. Mara and Foy are both superb (and sure to be major players come awards time), each running a gamut of emotion that culminates in immense catharsis, but Buckley’s role is far more thankless. It’s undoubtedly an interesting one, her broken worldview the most alien to us even within an already alien world (one thing the group is never in doubt about is their steadfast, traditionalist faith), but her dialogue ends up repetitive, making the same point over and over again until it just grates.
Ben Whishaw also feels a bit miscast as August, the One Good Man of the colony who never participated in any assaults and is helping the women with writing their debates and plans down. On paper, August’s awkward sensitivity should play to Whishaw’s strengths, but there’s just something uncomfortable and overwrought in the performance. Meanwhile, Frances McDormand is on screen for less than 90 seconds and says maybe a dozen words, making her on-screen presence – she also produced the film – more distracting than totemic.
This odd use of time extends to the finale, which lets down what has been a very tautly constructed story up to that point. It’s both overdramatic, with a sudden twist and extra complications, and weirdly not quite urgent enough, setting up a ticking clock that it then simply ignores. It’s a weird note to leave on, and though the final two shots are emotionally fitting, they’re let down by the ugly style that pervades the film. A deeply grey and washed out colour grade fits the tone of the story but it makes the whole thing look like an episode of Netflix’s Ozark, which is not exactly an aesthetic worth emulating.
Women Talking is a great showcase for Polley’s writing and a fair few of its cast, able to have a distressing and important conversation without becoming too despairing, and it’s no surprise that it’s made a splash with Oscar voters. The filmmaking surrounding these central strengths doesn’t always live up to the power of the words it should be elevating, but the sheer force here is undeniable, a weighty paean to the power of collective female action.