Women Talking Review: Sarah Polley’s New Electric Drama

Telluride: A stunning cast led by Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley and Claire Foy fuels Sarah Polley’s surprisingly hopeful story of a religious colony in crisis.

For God knows how long, women in an isolated religious community (Mennonite in all but name) were drugged with cow tranquilizer and routinely raped at night. The women were told they were raped by ghosts, demons or even Satan himself – a punishment for their own improprieties – and they believed this lie until two young girls saw one of the rapists then that he was rushing to bed across the field one night. . Some of the men were arrested, and those who weren’t went to town to get bail. The women of the colony, unsupervised for a short time, have about 48 hours to decide what their future will be.

Adapted from Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel of the same name with fierce intellect, immense strength, and a visionary sense of how to remap the world as we know it along more compassionate (matriarchal) lines, “Women Talking” by Sarah Polley never feels like just 104 minutes of beanie fundamentalists chatting in a barn, although – with a few memorable and sometimes very funny exceptions – that’s exactly what it is. Toews’ book could have easily been turned into a play, but every widescreen frame from Polley’s film will make you glad it wasn’t. She infuses this truth-inspired tale with a gripping, multi-generational sweep from the first line, which puts the violence in the rearview mirror and begins the hard work to keep it there.

“This story begins before you were born,” announces the film’s young narrator (Kate Hallett as Autje), conveying these events to a specific child while framing them in terms of a timeless moral fable – one set in an eternal yesterday that allows for an always possible tomorrow, despite the fact that it also belongs to a specific year in the not too distant past. As the story unfolds, Autje’s voice will ironically also be used in tandem with the fading sunlight outside the barn to help keep time and increase the tension. of the threatened return of men. “We had 24 hours to imagine what kind of world you would be born into.”

The “we” she refers to is a voluble and unforgettable quorum of eight people from two different families who were elected to break the tie in the colony-wide vote on whether the women should leave or stay and fight. A third option of forgiving the men and returning to the status quo is only embraced by the taciturn and terrified Scarface Janz (producer Frances McDormand, in a token role with little screen time), and rejected due to lack of Support.

Factions are neither clearly divided nor immutable. The curious and ethereal Ona (Rooney Mara) has her head in the clouds and discusses their predicament with a philosopher’s abstraction even though the baby in her womb – a memory of an unknown abuser of hers – would seem like a very concrete of what’s at stake. Seething with helpless rage and consumed by the helplessness that accompanies it, the abrasive Mariche (Jessie Buckley) offers a natural foil. Ona’s older sister, Salomé (Claire Foy), takes this anger to an even greater extreme and insists that the women exert their divine wrath upon the return of the men. But should her teenage son, about to become a man himself, be counted among their ranks?

Two elders are on hand to help guide these proceedings, with Ona and Salomé’s mother Agata (Judith Ivey) beaming with wise pacifism and Mariche’s mother Greta (Sheila McCarthy) hiding her wisdom in all sorts of comic relief with the help of his horses Ruth and Cheryl. As difficult as it may sound, “Women Talking” is an upbeat, propulsive film cut with a sharp wit and ready sense of humor, even as its characters often laugh as hard as they wish they could cry.

Polley trusts the horror implicit in a story in which each woman has been raped by her own brothers and fathers – including young Autje and her friend Neitje (Liv McNeil) – and never chooses to dwell on it any longer. than circumstances permit, as even the most deserved bit of self-pity is a luxury these women cannot afford right now. Their grief is so perfectly tied to their fear, rage, love, and hope that every shot of reaction and camera movement feels like a potential reveal. As one character says of the group’s first meeting: “It’s the apocalypse and a call to prayer. It’s both.

The level of action that makes this possible – which invites a biblically awe-inspiring degree of vastness into every close-up, and allows long dialogue scenes to unfold with the excitement and dexterity of a heart-pounding action movie – is so unbelievably out of this world that I’m tempted to ignore it altogether. Mara is rich and confident and full of surprises as an unexpectedly clear-eyed dreamer, while Buckley cuts through her character’s defensive callousness with such controlled precision you can feel the exact moment she hits the bone. . Foy has the liveliest role, and therefore also the most standout moments, but the way she ups the “You are all a bunch of boys!The energy she brought to “First Man” is a sight to behold.

Ivey and McCarthy are ultimately the most valuable members of Polley’s ensemble cast, as they provide the film with its guiding spirit when all hope seems lost, but even the men are excellent. Ben Whishaw sometimes just seems the slightest bit over-affected as a bullied school teacher with a tragic backstory who stays to record the minutes of the women’s meeting, but his spirit is broken for good reason, and the too-tender-to-the-touch romance her character shares with Ona explains her simpering as a self-defense mechanism in its own right.

Non-binary actor August Winter also shines as Nettie/Melvin, the resident daycare leader whose recent transition across the Colony gender line raises pressing questions about who women should take with them if they decide. to leave. What in the minds of these religiously indoctrinated people – who until a few days ago believed they were being violated by demons – defines a man? At what age do boys like Salome’s own son lose their innocence, and, perhaps even more pressing, at what age does it become too late for them to learn it again?

Each knotted question morphs into another, as the women debate the difference between leaving and fleeing; between the fear of the unknown and the hatred of the familiar. The conclusions they come to are vitally important, but Polley’s film is so extraordinary because of the way it animates the process by which these characters think about them. It’s the thought itself that frees them and paves the way for what the film’s opening text describes as “an act of female imagination.”

This act of imagination could have been even more galvanizing to see if it hadn’t been blurred behind such musty, rotten digital cinematography. Polley and his excellent DP Luc Montpellier (“Take this Waltz”) desaturated “Women Talking” in a way that smothers its images in an artificial gloom the film otherwise avoids, sours the inner light so many of its shots give off, and sometimes make this beautiful film a real horror to watch. It’s easy to see why Polley and Montpellier were drawn to Larry Towell’s black-and-white photography look for inspiration, but the compromise they struck between realistic color and monochrome left me desperately wish they had chosen one or the other.

But such a fantasy-driven film can only be tarnished by the color palette of what we actually see, and “Women Talking” is such a visceral, commanding ode to the stories we tell ourselves – and the stories women share with each other – that it is destined to be more vivid in our memories than it has ever been before our eyes. Like dragonflies migrating such epic lengths that only their grandchildren survive to get where they’re going (Mariche de Buckley clue rolling her eyes out of her head), Polley’s film plays the long game. deep within and along the horizon seeking the strength to envision a better future – a future more dependent on compassion than one-sided power that needs subjects it can prove itself on . “Women Talking” thinks it exists and its characters could find it even if they don’t have a map. Even if they have to make their own card.

Rating: A-

“Women Talking” premiered at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival. United Artists will release it in theaters on Friday, December 2.

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