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Sarah Polley's adaptation of Miriam Toews' novel won't be the easiest of watches this fall, but her handle on the source material makes for a cathartic slow burn of a drama.
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Writer/director Sarah Polley is one of those actors you may not have noticed who’s been working in entertainment ever since she was a child. She has played various roles in movies like "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen," "The Sweet Hereafter," "Go," and the "Dawn of the Dead" remake, among others. Yet, she made a better career when becoming a prominent Canadian filmmaker. Not only did her directorial debut, “Away from Her,” earn a Best Actress nomination, but Polley herself was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay.
In her first feature in ten years, her latest, "Women Talking," gets the title right on the noise with its female characters do indeed talk. But you’re getting a pretty thought-provoking and compelling story of hope that will stick with you in how these characters were treated.
Based on Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel of the same name, eight women in an unnamed religious Mennonite community— including Ona Friesen (Rooney Mara), her sister Salome (Claire Foy), Mariche (Jessie Buckley), Agata (Judith Ivey), and Greta (Sheila McCarthy) — learn that a group of men has been drugging and raping them for years in their sleep, believing it to be the work of ghosts or Satan that leaves them bruised and bloody.
The women are instructed to forgive the accused men while they are away from the region posting bail. That's not what they do. Instead, the women have a limited window of 24 hours to discuss their final decision in a barn after a split vote: Stay and forgive the men, stay and fight or leave the community and fend for themselves in a world they’ve never explored.
A runner-up for the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and recently made its Midwest premiere at Heartland, Polley’s latest was one I tried to know very little about, going to the point where I stayed away from the just-released trailer. Was it the emotional experience I thought it would be? It was a close. However, it’s an impressively good drama.
How she staged Toews' story is similar to watching a stage play (as expected), except there’s no exact geography of where it takes place. They mentioned it's 2010 when it could’ve easily been the early 20th century.
Most of the setting in "Women Talking" takes place in a barn where women of different generations come up with a plan to escape that's not simple to accomplish. If they leave, will they be denied a walk into heaven? Or leaving behind their sons for a better life? Can they raise young men to not harm their family members? Some have compared this to the classic “12 Angry Men,” and I couldn’t agree more.
For a heavy subject matter represented here, it can be a lot to fully process since it’s about these women wanting to see past their pain and trauma for a better life that proves to be more timely than ever. Even when it doesn’t offer anything new to the conversation, it still gives us important questions to ask.
However, I admire Polley's direction for keeping her adaptation from not being overly flashy and writing a rich screenplay that didn't shy away from the problems these characters were facing. This shows the process almost in real time while establishing the advantages and disadvantages of leaving or remaining where they were.
That might not be much to offer in 104 minutes, but talking about their limited options gives new perspectives to them and the audience simultaneously becomes engrossed.
Besides the impeccable task of Polley’s direction and writing, we’re looking at one of the year's best ensembles. You see this cast and know they won’t disappoint in their scenes that get tenser with each minute. Everybody was fantastic to where it’s going to be hard to single out who was the best; even Frances McDormand (who’s an executive producer) has a small role as Scarface Janz, who doesn't want to leave the community. But the three performances I believe were standouts came from Foy, Buckley and Ben Whishaw.
Foy floored me the most with her screen presence. Her Salome wants vengeance after she learned one of her children was raped by one man and she gives a riveting monologue explaining she would do anything to protect her daughter. After she was snubbed from a Best Supporting Actress nomination for “First Man,” the world will correct itself if Foy finally gets recognized by the Oscars. And Buckley, as the doubtful and stubborn Mariche, plays someone who doesn’t love what the world offers. Another great role for her.
Whishaw, the only male actor in the ensemble, plays the kind ex-communicated August, the schoolteacher (the boys) tasked with taking the minutes of the conversations on what they should do regarding being a woman trapped there, whether for forgiveness or freedom of choice. And I loved the scenes of Whishaw and Mara’s Ona, who’s carrying a child resulting from rape, where the former has a crush on her and wants to see a reality of them staying together to raise a family.
Everybody else, from Mara as the hopeful Ona, Ivey, Michelle McLeod, and McCarthy, were outstanding under Polley’s sensitive direction. Side note: Since this film has Mara and Foy sharing the screen, it took me an hour to realize both actresses played Lisbeth Salander in different adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s novels ("The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and "The Girl in the Spider’s Web," respectively).
There are some humorous moments I didn’t expect but brought some levity that assisted in not making the serious subject even bleaker. I also loved the powerful score from Academy Award-winning composer Hildur Guðnadóttir ("Joker," "Chernobyl"). And be prepared to think of “Daydream Believer” by The Monkees in a different light after sitting through this.
It took a while for me to become engaged during a slow first act. Though I understood where it was going to be heading, this hidden nuance kept me ignited throughout. And while the film looks beautiful thanks to cinematographer Luc Montpellier and its unusual aspect ratio, there’s something about the color palette chosen for the distinct tone that didn’t look right to me. Maybe it was a stylistic choice to show the women in the colony as drained of any color, but I wish the overall look didn’t have this muted tone; using some color grading could have enhanced the experience.
With “Women Talking,” Polley requires your attention for a self-contained, dialogue-driven story compelled by ideas of faith, the future and change. But it's a film carried by a strong ensemble, especially from Foy and Buckley. Like another Orion Pictures release, “Till,” who knows if I can rewatch this in the future. Even though I didn’t love it once it was over, there’s a strong possibility it’ll grow on me since it will be a huge Oscar hopeful in the next few months.