Sarah Polley’s adaptation of a well-regarded novel burns with passionate intensity
“What follows is an act of female imagination.” — Title card, Women Talking (2022)
Still in her mid-twenties, Sarah Polley shifted from appearing in front of the camera as a performer to writing, producing, and directing, beginning with a well-received character study, Away From Her, in 2006, a devastating adult drama, Take This Waltz, five years later, and, a deeply personal cinematic essay, Stories We Tell, in 2012. Each film, in turn, confirmed Polley’s natural gifts as a nuanced, sophisticated storyteller, easily among the best of her generation. Since then, she’s continued working, making shorts, writing a miniseries, Alias Grace, for television, and after a decade-long hiatus, returning to writing and directing feature-length films with Women Talking, an adaptation of fellow Canadian Miriam Toews’s award-nominated 2018 novel. It might just be Polley’s best, most cohesive, fully formed film as a writer-director, placing Polley in the front ranks of her peers.
Obviously, it helps that Polley developed Women Talking from a well-regarded novel, but she also makes key departures from her treatment of the source material, like leaving the setting and time period intentionally blank. Where Toews based her novel on real-life events that unfolded more than a decade ago in a Mennonite community in South America (Bolivia, to be exact), Polley, in turn, doesn’t identify the place, location, or even the year. Only a late-film discussion of nighttime constellations suggests a South American setting. Polley instead wants the audience to draw their own conclusions (past, present, or future).
The indeterminate time period and generalized setting also functions to elevate Women Talking into an allegorical tale pitting a dystopian, autocratic community, identified only as the “Colony,” against several generations of women awakening to the power to create and define a more equitable world for themselves and their children, a matriarchal democracy with equal rights and responsibilities regardless of gender. It’s the implicit idea referenced in the title card, “an act of female imagination.”
That long-simmering conflict becomes all the more pressing in the opening minutes as an offscreen narrator, unnamed, but likely a preteen, dispassionately notes the horrific circumstances, the repeated rapes and sexual assaults of both adult women and preteen girls by an unspecified number of the Colony’s men. Those not caught and imprisoned in a makeshift jail likely knew about the nighttime assaults and did nothing or supported the religious elders’ arguments that ghosts, demons, or even the women themselves were responsible.
While the accused men are led to a nearby city for processing, the women gather in a barn to vote on whether to stay or go. Deadlocked, the ultimate decision falls on a council of women nominally led by Greta (Sheila McCarthy) and Agata (Judith Ivey). Most of the “talking” in Women Talking, however, falls on Agata’s daughters, Salome (Claire Foy), enraged by the ongoing assaults, specifically on her young daughter, Ona (Rooney Mara), unmarried and pregnant by one of her rapists, and Greta’s daughters, Mariche (Jessie Buckley) and Mejal (Michelle McLeod).
The decision falls along three lines: Stay and, based on the edicts of the church elders, forgive the men when they return from the city (entry into Heaven depends, the women are told, on forgiveness), stay and fight, risking violent reprisals from the men, or leave altogether, leaving the men and most of the older boys alone. All the while, the only male character with any significant dialogue, August (Ben Whishaw), the son of an exiled member of the community, takes copious notes, creating a record of the two-day meeting for future generations.
From that point on, Women Talking unfolds in that barn as the women, freed from the oversight and judgment of men, express themselves freely. Despite their inability to read or write, the women express themselves with a freedom and depth of thought otherwise unthinkable to the men who rule and attempt to control their lives. The wide-ranging discussion ranges from forgiveness given under duress or threat, to self-defense vs. pacifism, to the realities of remaining in a community that will always undervalue or outright devalue women, and finally, to the increasingly tantalizing idea of creating a new society guided by radically different ideas of value, worth, and autonomy.
Polley takes an unobtrusive approach to bringing the source novel to the big (and small) screen, giving expressive weight her performers full rein to use their talents, skills, and experience to give depth and texture to their individual performances. When the camera moves, it’s always with purpose and never to draw attention to itself. Likewise, an autumnal, desaturated color palette that reflects the constrained, limited lives lived by the women in the Colony.
Not surprisingly, Polley’s bold, determined narrative and visual choices won’t be applauded, let alone welcome, by every member of the audience on the other side of the screen. Viewed from a macro level, however, as a deliberate collection of choices, effects, and impacts made by a skillful, talented filmmaker, the result educates, engages, and enlightens in equal measure. Ultimately, Women Talking immerses us into the lives and experiences of women who could have lived two hundred years ago, a century ago, or even yesterday.
After premiering at the Telluride Film Festival in September, Women Talking will receive a limited release on December 23rd in North America via United Artists Releasing.