I’ll be the first to admit that as a male writer, I am not the best source for perspective on a film like “Women Talking.” That’s not to say that men can’t write good things about great, women centric stories. Just that if you want a much deeper, more personal understanding and analysis of a film like this, you’re much better off seeking out reviews written by women. All I can do is write from an outsiders perspective as both an ally and a film critic. I will not pretend to know what women experience, and why “Women Talking” is so deeply resonating and relevant.
Despite the outside looking in perspective, I did find the film to be both, and an extremely necessary watch for anyone and everyone. Deeply moving, beautifully crafted, and powerfully performed, it is an incredible adaptive achievement whose conversation centric narrative will have people talking, too.
Single setting location films have kind of been all the rage since the pandemic essentially changed the way we both engage and create film itself, and this is no exception. Except that, its use of this narrative framework feels more intentional than circumstantial, highlighting the core of its themes and purpose by never really leaving the place with which we meet our characters. “Women Talking” is very much what the title suggests, but it is what they have to say about what has been done to them and what they plan to do about it that makes it one of the most captivating and thoughtful films of the year. Sarah Polley’s adapted screenplay hums with austerity, conviction and perspective, allowing her ensemble to explore the many facets and beliefs of a very complex and rather difficult situation. Polley’s script dives deep, and shatters the idea that all women see all things the same, even when the shared experience of trauma says otherwise.
Make no mistake, “Women Talking” is a very difficult film to take in contextually, as its primary catalyst is the discussion of rape and sexual assault. Again, Polley’s incredible script and direction allow for this subject to never feel gratuitous or forced, opting to showcase the women and their processing of these attacks as the center of her film rather than go all in on showing what has occurred. This is a smart move because it allows us all, both audience and characters to be on the same page from the get go without ever feeling like this is trying to tell you something we don’t already know. We establish quickly that these are brutal attacks, they have been continuous, and the women we meet have suffered greatly without every showing any of the violence in detail.
Based on a 2018 novel by Miriam Towes of the same name, “Women Talking” follows a group of isolated Mennonite women who have been drugged and raped in the night, with some of them even falling pregnant and baring the children of their attackers. They are lead to believe that the attacks have been exaggerated and worse, imagined. But after one of the men is caught in the act, they are taken out of town and a select group of women are chosen to decide what do moving forward: forgive the men and stay, leave the convent, or stay and fight. What transpires is a conversation about these options, and about their shared trauma and experience.. Each woman has their own idea of what to do and why it should be done, and the discussion held and the decision made will change all of them indefinitely.
Now this is probably where people (male critics in particular) begin to lament the idea of a film taking place almost exclusively in a barn talking about the same thing over and over again, going as far as to call it exhausting. Well, they’re wrong and that’s kind of the point. The reality is, this is for men to quite literally be August (Ben Whishaw), the male school teacher who is there to take the minutes of their meeting. His role is to simply be an observer, and allow the women to come to their own conclusions about their own experiences and action that needs to be taken. He is not in charge here, and we are reminded that this is not our story nor should it be. I know this sounds like I’m writing “Women Talking” off as a female only film, but that’s not what I’m trying to express. Polley’s use of August’ character is to reiterate that this is a woman story, told by women and experienced by them, and that men need only listen and understand as best they can. Mansplaining is not needed here.
Setting aside the subject matter for a second, from a filmmaking perspective, it is truly masterful. Polley demonstrates an incredible skill both in her penmanship and direction, breathing life into the dark gray color schemes and rather bleak story. Polley is acutely aware of what she wants to say and accomplish with “Women Talking.” Even more so with her incredible cast, who she lets shine bright with brilliant abandon. She is all in here, and that drives her powerful ensemble to go all in too. Frankly, you had me at Jessie Buckley, who can do no wrong and has been on an absolute tear in the last two years. The cast includes Buckley, Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy, and the aforementioned Ben Whishaw, among others. Mara, Foy, and Buckley absolutely riveting, delivering some of the best performances of their career in an ensemble setting.
“Women Talking” is surprisingly balanced, with all of the women given their chance to shine and have a voice.
This might be the best ensemble cast of the year. Yes, even better than “Glass Onion.” There isn”t a single wasted voice, and Polley’s keen eye behind the camera allows for each woman to thrive and never be overshadowed even when the more well known names are giving it their all. Even Whishaw gives a deeply moving performance, perhaps one of my personal favorites of his entire filmography. “Women Talking” is a performance showcase, one that is not only expertly executed but also elevated by those performances. I never got tired of watching these incredible women struggle to come to a unified conclusion, and just when you think they’ve got it, someone sheds light on a different perspective that sparks an entirely new conversation. Polley and her cast ensure that there is never a dull moment despite the film being largely a conversation piece, and their pairing of exquisite work deserves to be applauded.
By now you’re probably asking yourself how many different perspectives can there possibly be about sexual assault? And well, you’d be right to approach this with that mindset, as those of us on the outside (sorry dudes, that’s all of us) have ever really known. But if you actually take a moment to listen, you’ll see that shared trauma doesn’t mean shared conclusions, and just because two people share a devastating experience doesn’t mean they will interpret it the same. “Women Talking” proves its complexity by validating all of their perspectives. There is grief, anger, resentment, confusion, fear, hope, rebellion, conformity, shame, love, forgiveness, and yes, even laughter as catharsis. The robust range of thoughts and emotions allows the film to cover a wide array of themes and ideas, and the only way to understand them is to flesh them out and let the women talk. Whatever they decide to do has consequences and there are no easy answers.
“Women Talking” is steadfast in its desire to explore everything it can. This is a drama with parabolic qualities, and the film brilliantly pushes them both forward equally to somehow paint in both black and white AND shades of gray.
I could go on and on about all of the great things this film has to offer. From its soaring score by Hildur Guðnadóttir to its wholly unique cinematography by Luc Montpellier, to its commentary on religion, faith, and the cycle of violence with which so much of religion is predicated on. It is truly incredible how much is packed into “Women Talking,” and that very conversation proves necessary and relevant now more than ever. Hell, I didn’t even mention the brief appearance from Francis McDormand, who is given very little by way of dialogue but proves a looming presence with a layered, nuance performance by simply looking out into their isolated countryside from her porch. She is yet another perspective of a woman who has endured too much to change, adding yet another perspective different from the ones we see in the barn. There is just so much greatness packed into such small film its an achievement on its own to be so effective.
“Women Talking” may very well be on of my favorite films of the year that I don’t revisit often. Its subject matter is necessary, and I can’t stress enough how much this film manages to get across given its small scale setting and cast. Is it something that you’ll be in the mood for often? Probably not. This film has something to say, something that needs to be said and needs to be heard. This is one of the films that is going to be around for years to come, and people will revisit and study and dissect it for decades. I would encourage you to not miss out on the conversation. Whether you’re merely an observer or a woman who is a part of the discussion, the film is a must watch even if it can be hard to confront sometimes.
We can’t change it if we don’t talk about it, and we can’t know how to change it if we aren’t willing to listen. This film encompasses all of it and more, and is an experience I hope will resonate with others as much as it did with myself.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars
“Women Talking” is in theaters December 23rd. You can watch the trailer below.