Of all the films nominated for a Best Picture Oscar this year, Women Talking confounded me the most. On one hand, writer-director Sarah Polley tells a powerful story, pulled from real events. A top-notch cast works with unflinching passion. Still, I admired the pieces of Women Talking more than I actually liked the final product. This is an important message, housed within a decent-but-flawed film.
Polley adapts from Miriam Toews’ book of the same name. Both draw inspiration from the real violence and tragedy of the Manitoba Mennonite Colony deep in Bolivia. In 2010, the women and girls of this community are being drugged and raped. As this is an ultra-conservative, patriarchal sect, the victims are expected to forgive their attackers and go on with their lives. After a lifetime of repression—females in this society aren’t taught to read or write—a large swath of these women find themselves at a physical, emotional, and spiritual breaking point.
They convene in the loft of a barn and engage in a lengthy, heated discussion about how to respond. Three options emerge, each with wildly different consequences: The group can stay and endure, engage the men in a physical confrontation, or leave en masse. Church dogma says if the women don’t offer unconditional forgiveness, they’ll never enter Heaven. A fight would likely result in a bloodbath. If the women leave, they could never come back.
Strong personalities emerge in the subsequent discussion. Salome (Claire Foy) presents a fervent argument they stay and fight the men. Ona (Rooney Mara) agrees, believing they could demolish the old community and build a safer and more supportive one in its place. By contrast, hotheaded Mariche (Jessie Buckley) is adamant they remain and forgive the men: Her husband is especially cruel, and she knows how ugly a war with such barbarous men will be. Scarface Janz (Frances McDormand) remains loyal to the community, sins and all. She and her daughters will say and do nothing.
As the debate rages, the group invites August (Ben Whishaw) to act as both secretary and silent observer. None of the women can write, so this will provide the only record of this landmark meeting. He is also assigned to list pros and cons to each argument, thus providing each potential decision with fuller scope. August is soft-spoken, cerebral, and more worldly than anyone else in the compound. (He is also the only sympathetic adult male in the entire film.)
Just as you’d expect from something with Talking in its title, Polley’s film rides waves upon waves of fast-paced dialogue. (This is the smartest movie set in a barn ever made.) These dramatic salvos define the film, and they represent my biggest problem with it: The characters never cease to speak in a way that feels written. You can almost hear the wheels and gears of the screenplay at work throughout the story.
And that’s a difficult point to make, as such troubling and relevant subject matter cries out for intelligent discourse. At the same time, I feel these scenes are so tense and powerful, real people would jumble their thoughts and stumble over words. Instead, every line of dialogue feels meticulously snapped into place. Ultimately, I couldn’t shake the notion I’m watching actors in a play, and it blunts some of Talking’s emotional impact. (The dreamy voiceover doesn’t help, either.)
Within that play, the actors do shine brightly. Foy, playing the de facto leader of the younger victims, is excellent, as always. She plays Salome as a powerful cocktail of emotions—furious, devastated, and proudly defiant. Judith Ivey brings an otherworldly tranquility to her role as a female elder. Whichever way the women decide to go, she will act as a wise, calming influence to get them there. The real standout in all this is Buckley, who transforms Mariche into a live grenade of raw emotions. She has so much anger and frustration, and they threaten to detonate in all directions. Her very real rage elevates the entire production.
I’m in a bind as to rating this movie. I wanted to like it more than I actually did. Women Talking needs to be seen, and it needs to be discussed. Sarah Polley delivers a good film, brilliantly acted and beautifully filmed. In fact, that might be what frustrated me most: All of its strengths only made me wish it was even stronger. Rarely have I watched something with so much unrealized potential.
104 min. PG-13. On demand and in theaters.