Award-winning actors make stage-y 'Women Talking' come alive
The headline-grabbing movie about men behaving badly this Oscar season is the stellar She Said, but the one that may end up having the bigger impact is Women Talking, the first film from writer/director Sarah Polley in 11 years.
Based on the 2018 novel of the same name by Miriam Toews, the film tells a minimalist-but-powerful story focusing on the women of an isolated religious community. Fed up with the repeated violence and rapes committed upon them and their children by the men of what they call “the colony,” the women take it upon themselves to vote on what to do next: Do nothing, stay and fight, or leave.
The ultimate decision comes down to members of two families: Greta (Sheila McCarthy) and her daughters Mariche (Jessie Buckley) and Mejal (Michelle McLeod), and Agata (Judith Ivey) and her daughters Ona (Rooney Mara) and Salome (Claire Foy). While many of the men are away from the community, they meet in a barn loft to debate their faith, the threat of the men, and how the hold of those two things impacts their lives.
Prefaced with an onscreen note saying, “The following is an act of female imagination,” the film nonetheless hits home as an allegory about the subjugation of women for millennia. It’s initially unclear when the film takes place, but the gradual introduction of modern things on the periphery of the story makes it clear that it takes place in the 21st century, making the treatment of these women and their children all the more appalling.
The complicating factor for both the women and the audience is the religious aspect of the story. The sect – unnamed in the film, but Mennonite in the book – is all the women have ever known, and breaking away from that proves more difficult for some than others. References to Bible sections are prevalent, with different women using their beliefs as reasons for and against potential plans.
It’s not difficult to empathize with the women, even when some of them espouse ideas that go against what most would consider best for them as a whole. Even though the women are finally taking action against their oppressors, there are multiple times when they reconsider going through with their plans. As too often happens with oppressed women, it’s heartbreaking that the final step is the hardest one for them to take.
The film takes place almost entirely in the barn loft, making it tough for it to avoid feeling stage-y. Polley uses a variety of camera movements and glimpses of the farm outside the barn to keep things interesting. It’s the actors who ultimately make the film work as well as it does, as they imbue the dialogue – which can sometimes feel old-timey and awkward – with intensity and meaning.
This is a true ensemble film, so no actor truly stands out among the others. Mara and Buckley have three Oscar nominations between them and Foy has won two Emmys, but the way the story is told, every actor in the barn gets a chance to shine. Ben Whishaw does well as the only significant man in the film, and Frances McDormand makes an impact in a relatively small role.
Women Talking is a message movie through-and-through, and even though that message is plain to see on the surface, Polley and the actors still do an extraordinary job at delivering it. Patient viewers will be rewarded with a story that will likely – and unfortunately – resonate for years to come.
Women Talking is now playing in select theaters.