Review: Powerful 'Women Talking' One of the Year's Best Films

by Megan Kearns

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday December 23, 2022

'Woman Talking'
'Woman Talking'  (Source:Orion Pictures)

Words hold tremendous power. Discussion matters, yet it becomes transformative when catalyzing action, especially in imagining and building a more inclusive world.

One of the best films of 2022, "Women Talking" is a powerful, thoughtful, and meticulously-crafted film focusing on women in a secluded religious community dealing with how to move forward in the aftermath of trauma.

After all the women, girls, and a trans man in the community are drugged by cow tranquilizers and raped, the women come together and must collectively decide what to do: Forgive the men, stay and fight, or leave their home forever.

Written and directed by Sarah Polley, "Women Talking" stars Rooney Mara, Jesse Buckley, Claire Foy, Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy, Ben Whishaw, and a cameo by Frances McDormand, who optioned the novel. Adapted from the novel by Miriam Toews, it's based on the real-life case of women raped in an isolated Mennonite community in Bolivia.

An excellent film with a stunning screenplay, the chamber-piece film mostly consists of the women in two families debating their fate for the community in a hayloft. They only have until the men return to make their decision. The unfolding discussion reveals characters' personalities, as well as their personal pain and hopes for the future. The characters represent the spectrum of emotions and reactions that real-life rape and abuse survivors may feel: Rage, sadness, terror, numbness, deflection, withdrawal.

Ona (Rooney Mara) exudes a calm, gentle demeanor, yet she thrums with an incessant curiosity and speaks of lofty dreams. Her entire body taut with fury, Salome (Claire Foy) is an explosive ball of rage; she wants to stay and fight. Mariche (Jesse Buckley) speaks of forgiveness, yet her reactions contradict her words, as she exudes a harsh aura, snapping at everyone due to her pain. Agata (Judith Ivey) and Greta (Sheila McCarthy) worry about their daughters and are open to change, countering tired and ageist narratives about older people.

Greta tells an anecdote about her two horses' reactions to being started by dogs, regarding what they should do. When someone points out that they are not animals, Greta responds, "We have been preyed upon like animals."

Mariche's daughter Autje (Kate Hallett) narrates throughout the film, speaking to Ona's unborn child. She hauntingly says many of them "couldn't be there in our own bodies," and, because they didn't discuss their bodies, "there was no language" for what happened. "And in that gaping silence was the real horror."

The only men seen in "Women Talking" are August (Ben Whishaw), who takes notes of the meeting, and Melvin (portrayed by nonbinary actor August Winter), a trans man. Gentle and thoughtful, August is deferential to and respectful of the women — and he's in love with Ona. Melvin copes with abuse by only speaking to children, using gestures to communicate with the women. Two young women talk about him with tender concern, yet they deadname and misgender him. Later in the film, when Agata calls him Melvin, he verbally says, "Thank you."

August and Melvin show a tender, nurturing masculinity. They juxtapose the specter of abusive men fueled by toxic masculinity. By including the two characters, the film shows how patriarchy hurts everyone.

"Women Talking" explores and discusses systemic sexism, power dynamics, domestic violence, family, forgiveness, faith, healing, and liberation. In the press production notes, Sarah Polley shares how she found the community's resilience moving.

The film's visuals evoke the women's interior lives. The cinematography by Luc Montpellier — who also shot Polley's films "Away from Her" and "Take This Waltz" — comprises stark visuals and a palette drained of color with at times shades of blue — a color which symbolizes sadness, femininity, and serenity. According to the press production notes, black and white photos documenting Mennonite communities inspired Polley's visual vision. The palette also indicates how their world lacks dimensionality. Light streaming through the slats of the barn walls where the women converse evokes the bars of a cage, visually reifying their entrapment physically and emotionally. Other visuals — a close-up of two women holding hands, two girls' braids intertwined, strolling through the farm — symbolize the women's solidarity and community.

Flashbacks reveal the women and Melvin reacting to their horrific trauma; they show blood, but not explicit violence. While the subject matter is disturbing, I appreciate the visual restraint as scenes of rape can be triggering for me.

Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir revealed her anger about the story, which she channeled into her score. But she says the score morphed into one of hope. It consists of yearning, plaintive acoustic strings. During flashbacks, we hear bells. The haunting score exudes a raw allure, arguably fitting for a story about trauma survivors: The beauty of hope commingled with the shadow of past pain.

The strength of Sarah Polley's writing and direction and the entire cast's stunning performances and camaraderie will reverberate and stay with me.

Numerous films contend with rape culture and systemic sexism. Many films, including the horror subgenre of rape-revenge films, focus on seeking vengeance. Vengeance can be appealing. But as a trauma survivor, I often think: Does vengeance truly help? And what happens afterwards?

"Women Talking" understands the complicated nuances of trauma. A powerful beacon, the film refreshingly focuses on how victims and survivors cope with trauma and the salve of community and building a new life.

"Women Talking" opens in select theaters on Friday, December 23, 2022 and wide release on Friday, January 20, 2023.