Sarah Polley’s Women Talking had its world premiere last night at the Telluride Film Festival. It is a film that, at least for me, needed time to settle. I was haunted, as I sometimes am, by the faces of the characters — especially Rooney Mara’s, whose performance is probably the best in this very well-acted ensemble.
Twitter is a-flurry with “Best Picture frontrunner” talk at the moment. I think that is premature, although our recent conditional awards race (no white men winning the top prizes) gives the film a slightly better chance. That isn’t because it’s not good enough to compete with films directed by men — it’s simply that given the state of things it’s hard to know whether they’re doing well because they deserve to do well, or they’re doing well because people want a more fair Oscar race.
The only reason I bring this up is that in an ordinary year I would look at Women Talking and think: it’s a very good film but probably too divisive to win Best Picture. But in the post-2020 Oscars, that isn’t necessarily the case. In its own way, sad though it is throughout, Women Talking does end on an uplifting note, which helps it in terms of being a film that might win.
Either way, it seems a strong contender for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay nominations at the very least. Perhaps also Costumes, Cinematography, and Original Score. As for the acting ensemble, these are all supporting performances, with Rooney Mara as maybe the lead. The supporting nods would go to Claire Foy and Jessie Buckley, though it’s a very strong ensemble most certainly in line for a SAG nomination for the entire cast.
Women Talking is the reverse of the film 12 Angry Men. It is the same basic concept: women in a room talking, or in this case, in a barn trying to decide what to with the rest of their lives. The conflict in the book resonates a bit more than it does in the film — that they are strictly religious Mennonite women and must betray everything they know to save themselves and their offspring. That doesn’t come through as much in the film, probably because the actors themselves are so modern in how they speak, their tone of voice, etc.
I found probably the best summary of the book online, as follows:
A fictionalized account of a true story, that women in a strict Mennonite community in Bolivia were repeatedly sexually assaulted while drugged, by men in their own community. The women are having introspective existential conversations: to stay (and fight) or leave? They also discuss moral issues of faith and forgiveness. The only periodic male point-of-view is the transcriptionist who is translating their conversations into English and who occasionally offers comment. The context is a conservative patriarchal society where women have no rights. They want safety for their children, the ability to practise their faith and to think for themselves. Powerful writing.
Polley clearly has great respect for the book and its language. This is an exacting, careful adaptation that retains much of the dialogue while also bringing in stirring visual elements.
Here is a passage from the book that is put to screen:
“But what of your question? asks Greta. Should we consider asking the men to leave?
None of us have ever asked the men for anything, Agatha states. Not a single thing, not even for the salt to be passed, not even for a penny or a moment alone or to take the washing in or to open a curtain or to go easy on the small yearlings or to put your hand on the small of my back as I try, again, for the twelfth or thirteenth time, to push a baby out of my body.
Isn’t it interesting, she says, that the one and only request the women would make of the men would be to leave?
The women break out laughing again.
They simply can’t stop laughing, and if one of them stops for a moment she will quickly resume laughing with a loud burst, and off they’ll all go again.
Polley brings this whole scene to life so well. In a sense, the women in the film already seem free in their minds, with the exception of Jesse Buckley’s character, and the stern Mennonite matron who refuses to engage in the rebellion (Frances McDormand, who has a small part — almost a cameo).
Here is where I think the film could have used some scenes of their lives prior to deciding to leave that weren’t just about being raped. In the film Witness, for instance, we know the Amish world very well even before Harrison Ford is brought into that world. Once he gets there we see the stark contrast between us and them. In this film, it didn’t quite seem such a completely different reality as it does does in Witness.
Removing that element of the story makes it somewhat harder for the audience to root for the characters, at least at first. This is a film about ideas and about the bonds between women, and why they need to be in groups having conversations. It is a fundamental, primal need. Masculinity of any kind has been purged from this film almost entirely. Any men present are either children, or the only male character played by Ben Whishaw, who is the most emotional of all of them and deferential to the women, almost servant-like.
That will definitely lead some to see the film as “men = bad.” The very liberal men on the Left will have no problem with that because they agree and are often self-hating, as Freddie DeBoer’s infamous Substack piece illustrates. Certainly one could see it that way, as a screed against hetero males. But I think it’s deeper than that.
Women Talking wasn’t so much an emotional experience, at least for me. But as I thought about it more and ran it through my head (rather than doing what I should have been doing, sleeping), it became a much more powerful emotional experience. The thing that struck me was that this movie can be used by each side of the culture wars. I can see my friends on the Right celebrating its strong pro-life message. These are devoutly religious women, which is what actually drives the pro-life movement. This film makes that very clear in the idea that even a child conceived in a rape can be seen as innocent and be loved even more. My friends on the Left might attack the movie for the same reason, calling it “propaganda for the pro-life movement.”
Conversely, there is a character who is probably a transgender male. It is not said outright, but that’s the idea. We assume strictly religious people might be homophobic or transphobic but here, there is understanding, compassion, and ultimately acceptance. My friends on the Right would perhaps see that as inauthentic and “woke” in terms of putting something where it doesn’t belong just to push that ideology on unsuspecting people. In contrast, my friends on the Left would celebrate the film’s inclusion and focus on LGBTQ issues.
Thinking on these two key points brought up in the movie it led me to what I think is the film’s most courageous, most interesting and most important point: forgiveness. A part of this story leaves room for contemplating how all of the men who raped these women repeatedly could have been brought to this point at all. In a closed-off, very religious community, their non-stop need for sexual release might have driven them to such desperation that they would drug women and rape them while they were asleep. It is a brave notion, a difficult idea to let in any time but especially in 2022. That certainly doesn’t make it a rape apologist movie no more than it is a propaganda piece for the Left or the Right. It is simply yet another thoughtful rumination on the human condition.
We already knew Polley was a sensitive, observant, brilliant writer and director from films like Stories We Tell and Away From Her. As the Telluride Film Festival’s Julie Huntsinger said while introducing the film, with Women Talking, Polley has taken a big step forward.
Women Talking is Polley’s best film, and will likely be among the best films of 2022.