London 2022

Women Talking review – an extraordinary portrait of female resistance

Sarah Polley's latest is a striking, powerful drama about a community of women taking their lives into their own hands

In a remote Mennonite community, women awake to astonishing pain. They’ve been told by elders that the sensation is merely punishment for their sins and transgressions; demons and devils are responsible. When one of the women wakes and finds an attacker in her room, she discovers the truth – this is no demon, but a man, and a member of her own community.

This spurs the women into action. Understanding their lives are in serious danger from the people they’re supposed to trust, they vote secretly on what to do. The vote results in a tie, so a group meets in a barn to discuss their options: stay and forgive the men, or leave the colony. No matter what these women decide, one thing is certain: nothing will ever be the same again.

Sarah Polley, who wrote and directed Women Talking, has created a beautiful, striking and insightful film that feels reminiscent of a gender-flipped 12 Angry Men. Making what’s effectively a one-location film feel expansive by occasionally taking us outside of the barn to show snippets of life in the community, Polley's work is most potent when powerfully cutting away from the debate to reflect on the harsh, brutal realities of why these discussions are happening in the first place.

This may sound bleak, and the women’s reality is certainly difficult, though Women Talking is neither miserable or sluggish. Polley is dedicated to exploring every facet of these women’s lives, and she’s created an extraordinary portrait of female resistance. In all of the impossible sadness, Polley manages to find a surprising lightness and humour that gives the film’s ensemble tremendous vitality. It’s all highlighted by an impeccable score by Hildur Guðnadóttir, music full of hope, but aware of the perilous journey ahead.

It helps that this is a film packed with powerhouse performances. From the ferociously strong-willed Salome (Claire Foy), to the calm, idealistic Ona (Rooney Mara), each of the women, despite being linked by the same faith and community, see the world in very different ways; watching them clash is both compelling and illuminating. The dialogue crackles with urgency as these women debate their futures – not just their own, but those of their families, and the fate of the entire community. Especially good is the magnificent work of Sheila McCarthy as Greta, whose sweet, nurturing demeanour masks a lifetime of sadness and disappointment.

Women Talking is a study of taking your life into your own hands, and what it means to manifest your own destiny, especially when you’ve never had the opportunity to do so. It explores the way pain carries on through generations, and how within that pain there can still be vigilance, strength, and resistance. These women may see the world differently, but they’re united.

Women Talking was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2022. It will be released in UK cinemas on 18 February 2023.

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