[THEMATIC SPOILERS for Women Talking]
Women Talking‘s composite score is currently 79.14.
“Hope for the future is good. It is better than hatred for the familiar.”
Yet again, I have been gifted with an emotionally masterful and astoundingly powerful movie mere weeks after posting my “best movies of the year” article. Last year, this film was Mass, and this year, it’s Sarah Polley’s brilliant adaptation of the bestselling novel Women Talking. The film stars Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, and Ben Whishaw, and deals with an important question that the women of an isolated Mennonite colony must answer in the wake of a mass rape. Polley, utilizing the source material written by Miriam Toews, depicts the conversation that eight women must have about the colony’s fate. The men of the colony have left temporarily to post bail for the rapists, so the clock is ticking from the moment the film begins; the women must decide if they want to stay, or leave, a decision that will alter their lives forever.
Like Mass, Women Talking is a chamber piece – a film that takes place predominantly in one room, and puts the emphasis on dialogue in order to convey an effective narrative. Well-orchestrated chamber pieces are one of my favorite ways to tell a story, because they force the author to infuse each character with as much depth as possible in order to evoke emotion or entertainment, resulting in an incredibly fleshed-out screenplay. And the portrait Sarah Polley is able to paint with mere words is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful, astounding pieces of art I have ever witnessed. Polley’s screenplay for Women Talking is full of incredible exchanges and powerful lines that showcase thematic sensitivity and a brilliant understanding of these characters – a spectacle of the empathetic, immense power of the human language.
And Polley’s cogent, almost formidable affinity for empathic dialogue translates to her presence from behind the camera. While the film’s color correction does have an odd gray tint to it, the visuals are nevertheless so engrossing and fitting that her direction is able to transport the viewer into the situation of the Mennonite women. Arguably the film’s best moments are the ones without one character speaking to another, but rather, a compassionate observation of the life these women may choose to leave behind – often accompanied by narration from the youngest girl involved in the proceedings, Autje (Kate Hallett). Hallett’s calm yet haunting voice performance accompanies a rousing score from Oscar winner Hilder Guðnadóttir that unite to create a soundscape for the film, completing Polley’s cogent direction in a rousing synthesis of emotions.
However, as is the case with Mass and other chamber pieces – for instance, a favorite of this writer, 12 Angry Men – the acting is where Women Talking truly shines. Kate Hallett’s Autje and Liv McNeil’s Neitje often aren’t recognized in reviews of the film due to their age, but are compelling supporting players: children involved in the discussion whose mostly bored and playful demeanor sharply contrasts with the few moments in which they choose to speak up, roused by a moment of righteous passion that their mothers take part in so often. Michelle McLeod’s Mejal, a quieter member of the group proceedings, is also notable as a girl notably more traumatized than the others despite their similar circumstances, something which more embittered members of the point out.
Agata (Judith Ivey) and Greta (Sheila McCarthy) provide a wisened contrast to the youthful energy of Autje, Neitje and Mejal that add another layer to the discussion. Their remarks are considerate, often anecdotes that they find applicable to the situation, like when Agata reflects on how they have never asked the men for anything, or when Greta compares the actions of her horses to the decision of the women. Rather than use their religion to insist upon making ignorant decisions, Agata and Greta try to utilize their own life experience and faith to provide the women with the strength to escape – as Greta says, if they have been preyed upon like animals, they should respond like them.
Jessie Buckley and Claire Foy as Mariche and Salome are the two most outraged women of the group, for entirely different reasons. Buckley believes fervently that forgiveness is the only option the women have available to them, as it is dictated by their faith, and the outside world is something that none of the women have ever had to deal with. Foy doesn’t want to leave either, but she aims to stay and fight the men, to have the women drive them off and claim their home as their own. Their staunch opinions clash frequently, with the others frequently having to defuse their discord. Buckley’s and Foy’s are the most impressive performances in the film, shouting powerful warnings of the consequences of this conversation, screaming in agony that violence and forgiveness respectively must be the only apt course of action, each twisted by her own trauma.
Ben Whishaw’s performance as August, the colony’s shy schoolteacher who takes notes for the women, and Rooney Mara’s performance as the woman he loves, Ona, are the two final performers worth discussing. Both are pensive, concerned with what they must do in order to help the colony, mostly absolving themselves in the process. August, excommunicated from the colony as a boy due to his mother speaking out against the colony’s practices, returned in order to educate the colony, yet struggles with what his purpose will be once the women leave. Ona is his foil, an unmarried woman who was impregnated during the attacks and is certain of her and the other women’s purpose. The theme of a personal narrative is strong in Women Talking: what will be your journey, your purpose? What will define your life?
Women Talking is an easy 5 stars; an intensely sincere and profoundly intelligent chamber piece about forgiveness, innocence, violence, and the human will.