By Matthew Moorcroft
- Directed by Sarah Polley
- Starring Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Ben Whishaw
About halfway through Women Talking is when you realize that they still haven’t left the hayloft. This makes sense, of course, as the women of the titular title have an near impossible decision ahead of them. In the wake of numerous sexual assaults from the men in their community, they have three choices – forgive the men and do nothing, stay and fight against them, or leave the colony entirely. One could say there is only really one option here, something that Salome, played by the simply sublime Claire Foy, echoes, but as we soon learn it’s not really as simple as that, particularly in a situation where there are children involved.
It’s that dilemma that makes up the bulk of Women Talking‘s searing drama, who relies nearly entirely on Sarah Polley’s excellent and almost impossibly well crafted script. Polley, who has made a name for herself as a writer-director in recent years after seemingly leaving the front of the camera, makes her triumphant return here and it’s well deserved as it’s not only her best work to date but also one that comes at a resonate time. It feels all too real in a lot of ways, and the fact that every woman in that room – maybe save the kids, though the reason one of the men was caught was an near assault on one of said kids so even that can’t be discounted – has been sexually abused by the men is, unfournately, a real reality for women.
Polley also gives us small glimpses into the colony outside of the hayloft, though they are quick and mostly only serve to highlight the isolation and separation of these women from not just each other but also from the rest of the world. For 85% of the runtime, we are simply talking stuff out, and yes it is stage like but in the best way possible. Polley keeps things interesting by making the cinematography as dynamic and moody as possible, never reusing the same angle then she has to. The colour design in particular, surely going to be a divisive choice among viewers, is nearly black and white but has bursts of brown tones that in another film would look ugly but here somehow look beautiful at points.
Like a lot of these “one room dramas” as I like to call them, it’s carried immensely by it’s performances and all of them are uniformly excellent. As mentioned before, Foy is a standout here, but she’s very nearly upstaged by an equally commanding Jessie Buckley, whose portrayal of a battered housewife who is at the end of her rope demands your fullest attention. On the subtler end, it’s really Ben Whishaw who comes away as one of the more empathetic figures of the cast. Having to toe the line between quiet contemplation and cathartic support, he plays what could have been a “not all men” character into a more complicated, genuine figure and that alone is worthy of praise.
There is also a bold decision to never truly show the men of the colony (outside of the aforementioned Whishaw, who is portrayed as an ally of the women), which is a smart, ultimately film-saving decision. By removing the face of the men, the film forces you to make up the faces yourself, and those could be any man you know. It’s a tough truth though patriarchy and those systems of oppression that still remain for women today, and Polley’s bold directorial choices highlight this at every turn.
Women Talking could have simply been just another “important topic” movie, but it’s really, truly something special. It’s got commanding performances from top to bottom, it’s shot wonderfully, and it’s tactile feeling world and characters lend an authenticity that only Polley could have brought. One of the must watches of the year, and certainly one of our great Oscar contenders.