Let’s get this joke out of the way, my least favorite part of Women Talking was the women talking behind me in the theatre. How some people, especially grown adults, still don’t understand movie theatre etiquette in 2022 is beyond me. Rant over.
As for the film itself I was…pleasantly is not the right word but still…pleasantly surprised by Women Talking. This movie has been on my radar for a while yet has been mostly inaccessible to the general public until recently. Outside of seeing the online trailer a handful of times and some buzz on social media I have seen nothing resembling any kind of marketing material for this film. Seriously, I got to the movies several times a month and not once did I ever seen a trailer or even a poster in the lobby for Women Talking. Though I had a broad idea of what the film was and what to expect, I didn’t anticipate what an interesting morale dilemma the story examined that drove the entire film.
In 2010, a group of men accused of sexual assault are separated from an isolated religious colony and the women are pressed for time to make the decision to forgive the men, stay and fight, or flee the colony. What ensues is a back and forth debate amongst the women of the community between those who wish to leave and those who wish to fight off their attackers.
Writer/director Sarah Polley deserves a whole lot of credit this script. In a limited amount of time, it’s a relatively quick hour-45 to watch, she manages to develop several characters, build a complex society, and engage the viewer in a legitimate discussion of what the women should do. Initially the group is divided with Salome (Claire Foy) leading the charge to let the men back in the community only to meet them with force. On the other side, Mariche (Jessie Buckley) is firmly on Team Leave. Middling between the two is Ona (Rooney Mara,) recently impregnated without consent yet open to both forgiveness and leaving. Among the others left to decide are elders Agata (Judith Ivey) and Greta (Sheila McCarthy) and several younger women including Autje (Kate Hallett), Nietje (Liev McNeil) and Mejal (Michelle McLeod) while August (Ben Whishaw,) the local school teacher and lone man remaining in camp, assists them by taking the minutes for their meeting.
The story mainly takes place in a hayloft over the course of a day and a half and is very theatrical in nature in that it is a dialogue driven film with plenty of monologues for all to shine. The debate of what to do is really what drives the entire film as just as you think they’re coming to a conclusion a whole new set of circumstances pops up. “What do they do with the boys in the community?” or “Where will we go?” or “Can the men rejoin the women in the future?” etc. It’s a fascinating debate that only grows more and more heated as their time starts to run out before the men return. With appalling details, amplified by learning that the book this film is based on stems from a true story in Bolivia, one can imagine that every one watching the film will have varied opinions after the film is over.
There are strong performances up and down the cast here but ironically the standout performance to me is Ben Whishaw. August had previously been banned from the community due to his mother questioning their ways but later re-joined after attending school in the “real” world. His performance is both sensitive and heart-breaking as someone whose love for Ona clearly drives everything he does, even if its at the expense of his own happiness. As the most educated one in the colony, he clearly just wants to help the women though his perspective is not always taken seriously despite the fact that he is far better than the men on trial. The other performance that stands out to me is Claire Foy. As someone getting in touch with her inner-rage, seeing her get to chew through scenery and her willingness to stop at nothing to protect her children lead to almost all of the best moments of the film in my opinion.
It’s not a perfect film by any means. The decision from Sarah Polley to drain the film of most of its color, a greyish-violet hue covering most frames, is well-intended to show a world drained of happiness though it often becomes distracting as at points it looks like a latter season of Game of Thrones in terms of visibility. The script, while brilliant, does get lost in itself at some moments. Taking multiple pauses from their intense discussion for the group to join in hymns comes off more cheesy than moving.
As far as awards go, Women Talking has had a fairly rough season and seems to be leading the social media charge as the most overlooked film of the year. Oscar nominations come out tomorrow morning and the film should be up for a handful of awards though it won’t be too surprising if it underperforms. Sarah Polley’s script needs to be in contention and that should be a lock for a nomination. Whishaw should be in the Best Supporting Actor field and if anyone is going to be in Supporting Actress it should be Foy, though I could easily see Buckley and potentially Mara taking votes away from her. I’m rooting for it the reality is that it’s entirely possible the film just hasn’t been seen by enough people to truly make a splash.
Overall, this is a film well-worth the critical hype it’s been receiving. Do your best to find it at a theater near you but this film has done a criminally poor job of marketing itself that you may need to wait for it to come out on streaming. Great writing, great acting, and a dilemma that will leave you thinking long after the credits roll. I hope you all see Women Talking and I hope that there are no women talking behind you in the theatre.
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