Women Talking, written, and directed by Sarah Polley (Stories we tell), should come with a trigger warning for those sensitive to themes of sexual assault. This recounts a true story, based on the fictionalized novel by Miriam Toews, exploring life in a religious community and the aftermath of the assaults on women and girls. In Women Talking, two men in jail for rape are being bailed out by other men in the town, leaving the women alone. Much of Women Talking takes place over 24 hours in a barn, light shifting through the windows as the women contemplate, persuade, debate and talk. They each make impossible decisions to take agency over their lives.
Sarah Polley has assembled a dynamic cast that deftly handles her dialogue-heavy script. Frances McDormand (Nomadland) briefly makes an appearance that makes an audience yearn for more, Jesse Buckley (I’m Thinking of Ending Things) as Mariche gives a sorrowful performance and Claire Foy (The Crown) as Salome tackles the patriarchy and the material, making the audience forget any of her past performances and setting a personal best. Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Carol) as Ona, a mother vowing revenge for the injury of her 4-year-old daughter, is particularly impactful. As she rails against God, an audience can feel her impassioned cry. Ben Whishaw (No Time to Die) plays a schoolteacher who attends the meeting to take the minutes as none of the women can read or write. He can do nothing to help any of the women and gives a heart-wrenching performance.
Viewers are also helpless, and the plight of these women played so realistically by these actresses adds to the emotional devastation. The script is captivating. Not a moment is wasted, and the comparisons the film has received to the great one-room drama 12 Angry Men are spot on. Polley proves that it is possible to keep an audience riveted with just debate. It is a film for adults who love to listen, and Polley has made it easy to do so. The actors’ diction is crystal clear, no one mumbles, and there is no whisper of “what did she say?” or over-produced special effects. It is film as a discussion. In an untenable situation, Polley lays out the question: Do I stay or do I leave?
This type of film will have audiences questioning truth, morality, and how we listen to each other.