LFF 2022 Review: Sarah Polley's Captivating Film 'Women Talking'
by Manuel São Bento
October 12, 2022
Frequently, all it takes is an extraordinary cast to convince me to give a film a chance. Having no knowledge of Sarah Polley's previous movies, one would expect actresses like Claire Foy, Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, and Frances McDormand to be the selling point, but the truth is the premise was the winning factor. Simple, straight to the point, and focused on a debate about what to do in the face of constant attacks by men upon a community of women. Stay and fight, leave, or do nothing - options more difficult & complex than they seem. Women Talking discusses each of the choices for 104 incredibly captivating minutes.
Going with the obvious should be the easiest way to begin this. Women Talking is undoubtedly a character-driven story highly elevated by its cast. Each actress must embody not only the personality of the woman she represents but also her values, beliefs, and reasons why she decides to vote for one of those three options. Polley perfectly executes her cleverly written screenplay, based on Miriam Toews' book of the same name, achieving something tremendously complicated: not giving in to the idea that a particular decision is the right one but respecting all opinions while validating the justifications each woman – and Ben Whishaw's character – offers in such an absorbing debate.
Another brilliant point is the detailed construction of each character. In Women Talking, each woman's life directly impacts the choice they advocate. From the tragic events of the past to their religious position, without forgetting the "mother" factor or how each one deals with their terrible traumas, all the arguments brought to the table hold an emotional and personal connection with something impactful for the respective person. Polley treats her characters so intricately that, for example, it wouldn't make sense for Ona (Mara) to pick Salome's (Foy) option, nor vice versa, precisely because of Polley's care with the script.
The debate itself requires a delicate balance that the filmmaker, once again, demonstrates absolute control over. Whether it's about the main topic, religion, trauma, family, love, acceptance, forgiveness, revenge, or power, there are always extreme opinions – positive & negative – and an in-between, always presenting a broad sample for each topic. Women Talking manages to deliver an inspirational feminist message better than many previous attempts, all without going over the line, i.e., disrespecting and offending the opposite sex, making it clear that not all men are evil – August (Whishaw) partially serves that purpose.
The actress-character pair is also chosen with excellent accuracy. Mara is the perfect actress for the role of moderator, someone who tries to calmly understand all perspectives. Foy – the film's real standout – and Buckley find themselves at the extremes of the discussion, going so far as to deliver long, uninterrupted monologues with truly mesmerizing close-ups. Also, Judith Ivey as Agata – Ona's mother – shines with her own touching speeches. However, I fear Whishaw's performance might be overlooked. The actor reaches such a level of sentimental authenticity that tears shed quickly when he ventures into the heaviest emotions.
Dialogue and other interactions aren't always sober. A somewhat surprising amount of humor occasionally pops in to elicit some very welcome chuckles. Women Talking is one of those films where "action" is, in fact, words, so the choreography usually required for massive stunts is equally necessary here, especially given that the characters are all present in the same space for most of the runtime. Polley maintains an adequate pace, though some redundant brief phases slightly affect the second act.
Regardless, when the entertainment levels threaten to diminish, Hildur Guðnadóttir's lovely score comes in. Beautiful strings create a pleasant melody, generating an atmospheric environment that passionately accompanies the narrative that is unfolding. Polley's Women Talking doesn't have much color, even having sequences where it looks like it has turned into a sublime black-and-white - personally, the whole movie could have been in B&W. Costumes (Quita Alfred) and set design (Friday Myers) also deserve praise.
Also: McDormand has mere seconds of screentime aside from being a producer on the film. Pretty common marketing strategy to sell the film through its key cast. Just for your information.
Women Talking holds a lovely score by Hildur Guðnadóttir and features truly mesmerizing performances – Claire Foy being a clear standout – with emotionally resonant monologues that can break even the least sensitive viewer. Sarah Polley's exceptionally written and choreographed screenplay tremendously enriches the primary debate driven by the fully developed series of characters, where trauma, religion, acceptance, forgiveness, revenge, and power are some of the most memorable themes. The detail and complexity that go into each character demonstrate remarkable dedication and care. Worthy of several (and inevitable) awards.