TIFF Special Presentations Section
Reviewed for Shockya.com by Abe Friedtanzer
Director: Sarah Polley
Writer: Sarah Polley
Cast: Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Ben Whishaw, Frances McDormand, Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod
Screened at: TIFF Bell Lightbox, Ontario, 9/17/22
Opens: September 13th, 2022 (Toronto International Film Festival)
It can be fascinating to see how the suggestion of a new idea can radically open the minds of those who might never have considered it before. Much of present-day civilization exists in a digitally-connected modern mode, with varying degrees of access to technology depending on location and social class. Yet those within insular communities may behave as if they lived a century ago since that’s all they know, and the introduction of concepts that have never seen or heard of can be both very foreign and potentially groundbreaking. Women Talking examines a particularly transformative conversation that marks a major potential turning point for a group of previously-ignored women.
Members of a Mennonite colony have recently suffered a series of attacks and sexual assaults, and the women have been told that they will have the chance to forgive the men when they return from jail. The women have gathered and held a vote to determine whether they will do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. Deadlocked, the members of three families are selected to decide what to do, and they engage in a spirited debate about the pros and cons of each option, considering along the way whether they will be accepted until the kingdom of heaven if they do not forgive and whether they could establish their own community and religion away from the toxic men who do not uphold the tenets of their religion.
There is so much to unpack in this mesmerizing concept. These women do not know how to read or write, and don’t even have a map or any knowledge of the world to know where they are. A visit from a truck blaring music and announcing the 2010 United States census is jarring since everything else about this film feels like it could be set one or two hundred years earlier. It takes its inspiration from a real-life years-long incident exposed around the same time in Bolivia in which more than one hundred women came forward to testify about what they had experienced. The film includes a few stark and horrific flashbacks, and repeated mention of how they were made to think it was demons or the devil attacking them and not their own men.
Filmmaker Sarah Polley returns with her first film in a decade, one that utilizes an intelligent and excellent script to probe ideas that should be discussed fervently and frequently. The suggestions presented by the women as they debate what to do rightly assign guilt to the men who make the rules for violating them and then demanding forgiveness in god’s name, and they also ponder what to do with the boys who could easily turn into men just like their fathers, pausing to ask their male notetaker, August (Ben Whishaw), who now serves as the schoolteacher following an earlier excommunication, whether he believes they are irredeemable.
The cast is entirely terrific, led by Rooney Mara as a fiercely independent woman who radiates joy and acceptance but also refuses to consider the traditional route of marriage since she thinks that will make her something other than who she is. Claire Foy and Jessie Buckley both deliver spirited turns as very opinionated members of the discussion, who have their own mothers and children to consider and hold nothing back in offering up their takes. A film that features Frances McDormand and barely uses her should be questioned, but it’s because there are so many other wondrous actresses to spotlight that it’s fine for her to take a backseat.
Women Talking is far from a comforting film, but it’s one that so deeply probes what it means to have a voice and to decide whether or not to keep that voice. Its society feels like it couldn’t possibly exist yet evidently does in places in the world, and to imagine how different things could be just a few miles away from this isolated reminder of older times is mind-boggling. Its characters are so rich that audiences will feel compelled to spend more time with them, following whatever next steps they take to secure the future they ultimately choose, but this film wisely and emphatically ends without providing any certainty of what is to come.
Story – A-
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – A-