Women Talking is true to its title as a stunning showcase of great women actors given strong dialogue
Published on January 26, 2023
Rating 4 /5
Women Talking is based on a book and a true-life story, but it could’ve been based on a stage play, given its simplicity and robust script. A fantastic ensemble is assembled for an engrossing tale of questioning sexism, faith, legacy, and independence. For a film that mostly takes place in a barn, it’s an exceptionally powerful picture of women debating the best paths to proceed forward.
Set in a Mennonite colony, a band of young and old women has met secretly to discuss the possibility of leaving. The prospect becomes more pressing after learning that the drugging and raping of the women in the colony is not an isolated incident. Given how many times the men have got away with this act after the revelation, the top priority for these women is to escape. The escape itself doesn’t seem to be the problem, but more what they’re willing to leave behind and how likely they can survive in 2010.
The group includes Ona (Rooney Mara), Salome (Claire Foy), Mariche (Jessie Buckley), Agata (Judith Ivey), Greta (Sheila McCarthy), Mejal (Michelle McLeod), Autje (Kate Hallett), and Scarface Janz (Frances McDormand). Younger ones like Ona are a bit more confident in making it on their own. Older ones like Janz are less certain that leaving the colony would be a good idea. So they weigh the pros and cons of their various meetings as the farm boy August (Ben Whishaw) takes the minutes and offers his insight as somebody who previously left the colony to learn about the outside world.
Writer and director Sarah Polley has a fantastic ability to make an audience incredibly invested in the secret barn debate. She shoots the film with gloomy, washed-out colors to maintain the tone and leave the audience hanging on every dialogue. Though we see very little of the heinous acts by the colony's men and even the men in question, it’s easy to believe this level of fear and rage that courses through the many women. There’s uncertainty and doubt that, while it diminishes with each meeting, is still present in everybody’s mind. After all, if attacking the men with scythes does little for the men to reconsider their ways, it seems like the opportune time to depart.
Of course, this premise can only work well with the right cast, and there’s a fantastic ensemble assembled for this picture. While Frances McDormand once again delivers another mesmerizing performance, she practically takes a backseat to the stronger performance by Judith Ivey, playing an elder who is well aware of her mortality. She recognizes that she may not live to see the same freedom as the other women but that it is a goal worth fighting for, delivering the film's most sobering yet tragic performance. I doubt I have to divulge the brilliance on display with Mara and Foy who already have several strong roles in their career and do an exceptional flex with this meaty picture of performances worthy of the greatest of stage plays. And Ben Wishsaw provides a strong dose of innocence to the film, playing a man who wants to do better for having realized his community has betrayed trust and stunted education in academics and society.
Women Talking is true to its title as a stunning showcase of great women actors given strong dialogue. There’s great tension in these many meetings that debate all the merits of wanting to leave. It’s easy to look at the conditions of these women and argue that they should skip town immediately. It’s a much more difficult task to be in that situation to contemplate the logistics of leaving and how it will change your life forever. This film does a brilliant job highlighting the difficulty in fighting back, even if it’s something as simple as heading out on your own.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.