Sarah Polley returns to the feature director’s chair for the first time in ten years, Stories We Tell, and her first narrative film since 2011’s Take This Waltz with the awards favorite Women Talking. Her new costume drama utilizes an all-star cast to create a captivating piece of cinema despite the film living up to its title and being almost exclusively women talking.
The film takes place in 2010 in a Mennonite village directly following an incident where the women of the community caught a man tranquilizing and sexually assaulting a woman. The man gives up a list of other men who are guilty of the same practice and is arrested by the local town. When all but one of the other men go to town to bail the guilty parties out, the women of the town gather to discuss their options going forward.
Forgiving the men, staying and fighting them, or leaving are the choices that the women consider, and despite being illiterate they organize a vote for all the women to decide their fate. When the vote returns, it results in a tie between fighting and leaving so three families convene to discuss their eventual decision.
Ona (Rooney Mara), Salome (Claire Foy), Mariche (Jessie Buckley), and Janz (Frances McDormand) along with a handful of other older girls and women and the only man still in the village August (Ben Whishaw), whose only job is to take the minutes of the meeting, lock themselves in a barn to discuss their future.
Janz immediately gives an ultimatum that forgiving the men is the only option she will accept as it is the only way that they can still attain heaven according to their faith. When the rest of the women rebuke the idea, Janz storms off leaving the remaining women to deliberate between the other two options. The film proceeds from there with the women conversing with only one short break for them to perform their traditional duties.
While the bulk of the film may seem actionless, the emotion displayed by each woman is entrancing as they grapple with an unknown future. Claire Foy declaring that if she should stay, she “will become a murderer” is devastating. Rooney Mara aptly captures the horror of her situation, an unmarried woman who has just realized that her pregnancy was due to the evils of men and not the supernatural. The terror that the women have endured becomes palpable because of the exquisite acting.
Much has been made about the color grading of Polley’s film, and while the decision is stark, it is both not without reason and not as distracting as out of context screen shots make it appear. The washed-out color leaves the film almost monochromatic echoing black and white filmmaking of the past. This homage to an older time reflects the out of time feeling that the Mennonite community exhibits, and especially the ancient mentality that would allow men to do this to women without consequence.
Highlighted by the unnerving acting trio of Mara, Foy, and Buckley Women Talking is a tour-de-force for a post #MeToo world.