Editor’s Note: The following contains Women Talking spoilers.Sarah Polley’s Women Talking debuted to rave reviews during its first screenings at the Telluride Film festival earlier this year. Although the film had been earmarked as a potential awards contender based on Polley’s name alone, Women Talking proved that it definitely deserves to stay in the conversation about 2022’s best films. Although Polley is one of the most emotionally specific filmmakers of her generation, it’s sadly been a decade since her last feature film, Stories We Tell, a film that explores the complexities of memory.
Women Talking is based on the influential novel of the same name from 2018 by Miriam Towes. Set in a remote community in 2011, the story follows a group of ultraconservative Mennonite women in Manitoba Colony that discover that they’ve been drugged and sexually assaulted by the same group of men. Although the novel details the trial and the subsequent court proceedings, Polley chooses to focus on the series of decisions made by the women in the community as they consider what their role in the community should be moving forward.
While the novel is loosely inspired by true events, the film itself does not give any indications as to when it might take place. The simple rural outfits and lifestyle suggest a colonial environment, and the dialect does not include any specific cultural references that would bind the story to one period in history. This isn’t due to any lack of specificity on Polley’s part; it’s an active choice. She uses the vague setting to explore the timeless theme of women whose voices have been silenced.
Sarah Polley’s Theater Roots Shine in ‘Women Talking’
Polley has been playing around with genre for her entire career. Polley’s debut feature, Away From Her, has the emotional maturity of a veteran filmmaker, despite her relative youth at the time; her follow up, Take This Waltz, delicately subverted romantic-comedy story beats. With Women Talking, Polley shoots the film with a deliberate lack of realism; there’s a shadowy, gray color to the cinematography that makes the film look like a faded photograph. It’s as if it’s a historical artifact meant to be studied for its educational purposes.
There’s an element of theater within the dialect itself; the blunt, highly calculated phrasing of nearly every member of the community is poetic and impactful. As Ona (Rooney Mara), Salome (Claire Foy), Mariche (Jessie Buckley), and the younger women bicker over whether or not they should leave their small farmhouse for good, they rise to active debate after only a few short meetings. Polley understands that these themes and conversations are relevant in any era; she keeps things purposefully vague, because the setting is less important than the message of societal sexism.
The only central male character in the film is August Epp (Ben Whishaw), a kindly school teacher that is tasked with keeping the minutes for the women’s meetings. Epp keeps track of the records on a simple whiteboard, and later writes them down on a scroll. Again, this could suggest several things about the setting; this could be an older time period, a more impoverished community, or simply an active choice on Epp’s part to retain the secrecy of the proceedings.
‘Women Talking’ Delivers More Expert Song Selections
Any fan of Polley’s knows that she’s a filmmaker that knows how to drop great soundtrack selections; the sublime uses of “Video Killed the Radio Star” in Take This Waltz or “Skinny Love” in Stories We Tell speak to the core truisms of the stories, resulting in impactful cinematic moments. During a transitional moment when the women begin making plans to leave the community for good, Polley uses “Daydream Believer” by The Monkees as the backdrop for a montage of the community at work.
It’s one of the few moments of action in the film, and the surprisingly fluid transitions between characters is a stark contrast to the more stately conversations that dominated the earlier part of the story. There’s not an indication as to why this song in particular is being used. It could be meant to signify the 1960s, or just be a nostalgic use of an older song. Either way, the use of any kind of familiar music helps Polley ground the story in more empathetic qualities as the women contemplate the consequences of their actions.
While they’re resolute on leaving, there are practical matters that they must deal with. Should all men be abandoned, and do the young boys in their community have the potential to inflict harm? At what point can they be saved? Where will they go without a map? Will Epp be forced into solitude after their departure? The idealistic nature of the earlier quest begins to fade into the background as the optimism of “Daydream Believer” disappears from memory.
The Exodus Journey Within ‘Women Talking’
The journey that the women of Women Talking choose to partake in, one that would take them to a place where they could form an independent society, has almost biblical conversations. It could imply something about the women’s faith, but perhaps Sarah Polley is inviting other storytellers to adapt the story with their own cultures.
There’s both a deep sadness and a sense of optimism in the choice to make this story so timeless. It’s unfortunate that a story of women living in fear of sexual assaults could be both a relic of the past or a reality; Polley does not imply that this specific incident will have any broader impacts beyond the isolated set of characters. However, perhaps the choice to make it feel deliberately historical suggests that there could be a time when this story is no longer relevant. Hopefully, a story of women whose stories are ignored will feel like a relic of the past, and not a reflection of our reality.