Sarah Polley’s Women Talking: A Movie of Ideas
By Arnold Anthony Schmidt
As might be expected, the most intriguing thing about director Sarah Polley’s film Women Talking, nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars, is what the women talk about. The film treats sexual violence, but only a hint of that appears on screen. The repercussions of those actions, however, loom large in figures of pregnancy and trauma, of damaged souls and potential healing.
Based on a 2018 novel of the same name by Miriam Toews, the film presents a religious community in which women have neither agency nor identities in a public sense. After a series of violations which see the rapists neither ostracized nor really punished, the women in the community must decide what to do. This movie of ideas follows the evolution of their thinking as they remember, share, and process their tragic experiences.
The women admit that, in the best of times, they receive treatment only slightly different from that of the farm animals. But these are not the best of times. The seeming benevolence of the hierarchical male power structure masks its true nature as authoritarian and corrupted. Patriarchy leaves women and girls inhabiting a world of domestic violence, child sexual abuse, and rape.
With no education for girls, the adult women remain illiterate and ignorant of science, history, and the world around them. Unable to develop to their full potential, they don’t know what they don’t know, what they’re missing in the world just beyond their horizon. In one compelling scene we realize that they have never even seen a map and remain ignorant of what lies outside of their farm.
Yet now, the community demands that they meet, discuss, decide, and vote, all actions which reveal much about the characters. In an example of representative democracy, a group of women have been selected to decide how the entire female community will deal with this crisis. The core of the film follows their deliberations as they decide to take one of three actions: stay with the men, resist the men, or leave.
Many films address the issue of sexual violence. Depending on the genre, some use it as a point of departure for explorations of character psychology, while in others it serves as the justification for revenge wish fulfillment. Woman Talking takes an entirely different tack. Here, the film explores that violence in the context of social cohesion, asking what holds couples, families, and communities together and what rends them asunder? The women grapple with the central question of assigning guilt and responsibility, asking why this happened?
Do crimes come – at least in part – from the society that produced the criminals, as well as from the criminals themselves? If women raise men, and men behave violently, are mothers to blame? If mothers raise boys in a toxically masculinist society, is it fair to hold women responsible if their sons go wrong? How can those men and that society be cured? Who can cure them?
And finally, the conversation turns to the film’s most important question: what, if any, role might men play in such a society? Might not women live better in a society that excluded men, at least men as society currently raises them?
After seeing Women Talking, I’m left with two takeaways. First, this is the best ensemble film I’ve seen in a long time, one in which no single person – or pair of people – really dominates. The most famous, Frances McDormand, has relatively little screen time. Films without leading characters gives audiences the pleasure of seeing the narrative from multiple perspectives. Understanding the many conflicts and dramatic arcs of this movie’s various characters makes it particularly complex and engaging.
Second, the film reaches a conclusion which pays off as satisfying, if enigmatic. As a viewer, I’m left imagining what would happen if the women had chosen one of their other options. Not because I think they chose wrongly, but because I like teasing out the implications of their other possible decisions.
And of course, I wonder what will happen to them next. If you’re like me, this rich and provocative film will stay with you for a long time, as you revisit in your mind the arguments stated, positions taken, and decisions made.
Cast & Crew
In addition to this year’s Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, accolades for Polley’s earlier films include a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for Away from Her (2006), which earned Julie Christie a Best Actress nomination.
McDormand earned Best Actress Oscars for Fargo (1997) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018), as well as another for producing the Best Picture Nomadland (2021). She received Best Supporting Actress nominations for Mississippi Burning (1989) and Almost Famous (2001).
The rest of the ensemble comprises Jessie Buckley, whose work in The Lost Daughter (2021) received a Best Supporting Actress nomination, and Clare Foy, perhaps best known for her television work in Wolf Hall and The Crown. Other cast members include Judith Ivey, who appeared Gene Saks’s Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986) and Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers (2006), and Rooney Mara, nominated for Best Actress for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2012) and Best Supporting Actress for Carol (2016).
The only significant adult male actor in the cast, Ben Whishaw, appeared in Jane Campion’s Bright Star (2009) and Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster (2015).
The beautiful, if minimalist, cinematography by Luc Montpellier feels evocative and atmospheric.