Toronto 2022 Review: Women Talking
There’s something almost too simple about the title of Sarah Polley’s excellent new film, one it takes from the Miriam Toews novel on which it’s based. Yes, Women Talking succinctly describes the events of the film in large part, which mostly features a group of female members of a Mennonite religious colony as they sit together in a barn to make one of the hardest decisions of their lives after the truth behind horrific acts of violence have been unearthed. But it’s the fact that they’re speaking at all that lends their words and the film so much weight and so much power. In the world in which they’ve lived, this talk may be the first truly free and independent one they’ve ever had with each other — an opportunity tragically only granted as the result of immense harm.
As Polley (also the film’s writer) succinctly lays out in the opening moments, the women of this colony — one that exists in the modern era — have been systematically drugged and sexually assaulted over the course of months, if not years, and were told the perpetrators were merely satanic forces. But when the true aggressors are identified as a swath of the colony’s men, the women are left alone to determine their attackers’ fates, with the implication that they should forgive them in order to ensure all members of the group can find their way into heaven. Though forgiveness is ostensibly on the table, the vote taken by the women essentially narrows down their choices to two options: stay and fight for their rights and their lives, or leave the colony en masse to start anew. A few multigenerational families are tasked with the final decision, one that will affect the futures of everyone they know for decades to come.
Along with their mothers and daughters, the central players in this debate are embodied by Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, and Jessie Buckley, each of whom is acting in a slightly different register while working impressively and generously as part of a cohesive whole. If you had to pick a single standout it would be Buckley, whose depiction of the shell one creates when faced with years of abuse breaks your heart and takes your breath away, but the film really is an ensemble effort through and through, reading like a truly collaborative process at every step. Even the biggest performance — ironically Ben Whishaw as the only major male character recruited to take the women's minutes as they converse — feels of a piece with the rest of the elements and earns its showiness by the end.
Holding it all together is Polley, whose stylistic flourishes keep what is essentially a chamber piece from ever feeling too limited or repetitive. From frighteningly staccato flashbacks to an out-of-left-field music cue, her talents as a director and storyteller are on full display. This isn't a film that merely relies on its star-studded cast: every decision, even those one might find fault with (a heavily desaturated color palette may fall into this category) clearly reads as meticulously determined, either on set or in the editing room. Just because a story should be told doesn't mean it will be told well, but with Women Talking both parts of that equation thankfully measure up.