A Woman Talking: Trusting the Process in the Work of Sarah Polley

To coincide with the release of Women Talking, Anna McKibbin explores the ethos behind the films of the acclaimed director

Canadian writer-director Sarah Polley's debut film, Away from Her, tells the story of Fiona (Julie Christie) and Grant (Gordon Pinsent), a couple struggling in the wake of her Alzheimer’s diagnosis. A rich and nuanced text, it highlighted how effectively Polley could centre complicated relationships in a tale that encourages the audience to peer in, briefly catching a glimpse of a couple’s whole life in the space of a few months.

Grant is eventually forced to come to terms with his wife’s new relationship with someone in the nursing home, and towards the end of the film he is caught off-loading some of his residual bitterness to the on-duty nurse, Kristy (Kristen Thomson). In a moment of thematic clarity, she surmises that “in this job you see the end of things all day long, and in my experience at the end of things it's almost always the man that thinks not too much went wrong. I wonder if your wife feels the same way.” This line slyly reflects Polley’s ethos; the end is only a distillation of everything that came before, rendered less interesting in its inevitability. With her newest film, Women Talking, she leans into this further, explicitly gendering the idea and suggesting that a regard for the process and being a woman are intrinsically bound.

Sarah Polley started acting at the age of four, gradually progressing into child stardom before making a significant step in her adult career with Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter. Polley plays Nicole Burnell, a teenage musician who is paralysed after being in a tragic accident, and is called to convey the same turmoil in the face of adult restrictions as she did in Egoyan's Exotica. In both films she is left grappling with her passivity, an immobile pawn in adult-scale conflict. Egoyan wields Polley as a secret weapon, letting the stakes grow insurmountably high while the weight of the plot silently hinges on her relationship to a paternal figure before confronting them.

Egoyan intercuts The Sweet Hereafter with Nicole’s weary recitation of Robert Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” Lines from the poem hover over crucial moments, including the revelation that Nicole is sexually abused by her father (Tom McManus). Later, Polley would go on to write the screenplay for CBC’s adaptation of Alias Grace, that culminated in Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) wondering aloud if hypnotism (the final tool employed to get Grace to confess to her crime,) offered women an opportunity “to express their true thoughts and feelings more boldly.” It calls to mind her haunting, trance-like delivery of “I can’t forget that I’m bereft / Of all the pleasant sights they see.” Polley has always been building small swells of entrancing honesty into the crowded cacophony of masculine decision-making.

Two years after The Sweet Hereafter, Polley would swap the seething silence of these emotional dramas for the zany fury of Doug Liman’s Go. She plays the self-aware Ronna, a grocery clerk determined to make money selling (fake) ecstasy. The kind of blatant disregard for consequences that possesses Go feels like a purposeful retreat from the young women she had previously been associated with. Women whose sense of self-preservation drives the film forward in a series of impulsive leaps. This comedy of errors is a never-ending cascade of unintentional consequences, people’s decisions are untraceable, informed only by every character’s desire (and inability) to be in control.

This recklessness feels freeing in comparison to the internality of Polley’s characters in Egoyan’s work but Go coincided with her own apathy towards acting. As she admitted to Katie Holmes, (her co-star in Go) in Interview magazine: “When I was like 18, 19, I thought, 'This is a trivial way to spend my life. I shouldn’t be doing this.'” Her films thereafter abandon this rampant chaos, and are instead dedicated to coaxing ideas and feelings out of her protagonists, savouring the details of a conversation, letting a film live and flow through small details.

Women Talking sees Polley return to directing after almost a decade away, but the early stage of her career was punctuated by a steady release of varied features. They are all, on some level, love stories, concerned with the ways this emotion can take up space, contorting life into new strange, shapes. At one point in her documentary Stories We Tell, which charts Polley’s relationship to her family after discovering the man who raised her was not her biological father, her father heavily admits “loving is short, forgetting is long.” It is a sentiment that would encapsulate the movies she had made up to that point, a conclusion to a string of films that had carried out an unbroken conversation on love and its cost.

See Polley's Take This Waltz, a narrative film that explores a relatively simple relational predicament and stretches it to feature length. Margot (Michelle Williams) considers whether she should stay in her simple, easy marriage with Lou (Seth Rogen) or leave him for the handsome, mysterious artist (Luke Kirby). The question is an ever-spinning wheel that bumps into Margot, testing the sturdiness of her identity. Eventually she collapses into the inevitable, leaving Lou and pursuing a relationship with Daniel. But the film extends beyond that, pushing past the natural conclusion to sit with Margot as she rides the Waltzers alone after being misunderstood by Daniel and confronted by Lou’s family; a loaded ellipsis of an ending.

When reflecting on her mother in Stories We Tell, the phrase “never touching the bottom” is bandied about, a reflection of peoples’ eminent mystery, and a meditation on the love her and her siblings hold for their mother as they sink deeper and deeper into her unknowability. The embrace of such inscrutability is mirrored by the end of Take This Waltz. People grow in inconsistent patterns – the sum total of every experience that has yet to rise to the surface. Margot’s decision wasn’t the lateral move she thought it was; it mimics the swirling path of the Waltzers, a momentum so swift that it makes her momentarily forget she was in the same place moments ago.

There is an exchange Polley writes about in her book Run Towards the Danger (and has since reflected on in various interviews and panels). The story focuses on Jaco Van Dormael, who directed her in Mr. Nobody. After a day where Polley was forced to confront the fears she sustained from acting as a child, Von Dormael wisely reminded her that this film could “affect two or three people for a little while. The only thing that is certain is that the experience of making it will be with all of us, forever. So we must try our best to make it a good experience.” It is a mindset she now carries to her film sets, and one that has profoundly infected her filmography. Decisions are interesting insofar as they reflect the conversations that lead up to them. Polley has spent her career spotlighting these conversations, inviting the audience into the process, determined to make it a good experience.

Women Talking is released in UK cinemas on 10 February.

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