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HomeNewsWomen Talking movie review: Sarah Polley’s potent and clear-eyed drama

Women Talking movie review: Sarah Polley’s potent and clear-eyed drama

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You can just hear it. The sniggers that come from the regressive corners of society. The smug question: “Err, why would anyone watch a movie about women talking?”

Why would you watch a movie about women talking? Because it’s brilliant.

Directed by Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley, who also adapted the screenplay from a novel by Miriam Toews, Women Talking is a clear-eyed and potent drama that dazzles with its unshowiness.

This is a film that puts dialogue at its centre, but without feeling like a staid stage production. It courses with purpose and intent, as it explores the myriad challenges faced by women when their agency, bodies and dignity have been stolen.

Even though it’s a Spartan approach to filmmaking, Women Talking never fails to slap you awake.

Set in a Mennonite colony, the story kicks off when the women and girls discover that a group of the community’s men have been drugging them and then raping them while they’re subdued. Some of the victims are children as young as three.

The women wake up in the mornings, alone but bruised and bloodied, with no recollection that anything had happened to them if not for these physical markers.

When the group of men are arrested, the rest of the colony’s men travel to the city to bail them out. While gone, the scores of women in the colony vote on whether to leave or to stay and fight. When there’s an impasse, a smaller group convenes in a hayloft to discuss the pros and cons of each choice, and to come to a final decision.

The discussions in that hayloft strike at the heart of what many women are grappling with, as communities the world over reckon with violence against women, domestic abuse, misogyny and, infuriatingly, much more.

What Women Talking really delves into is the whole community’s responsibility, but what women specifically owe to themselves and to each other.

Can you stay and fight, or can you forgive and forge a new path together with men? Do you give perpetrators and enablers the grace of an attempt at redemption? Or do you recognise that the umpteenth bruised eye socket means they’ll never change?

Can you have faith that the unknown is better than the known?

Polley’s characters – the fiery and fed-up Salome (Claire Foy), the belligerent Mariche (Jessie Buckley), the patient and warm Ona (Rooney Mara) or the sage Agata (Judith Ivey) – do more than represent different and shifting points of view. Their perspectives are contextualised within their experiences.

Women don’t all agree all the time; far from it.

The commanding performances from the ensemble cast make the most of Polley’s writing and vision. Foy and Mara are particularly impressive, while Ben Whishaw as August, the colony’s schoolteacher, is brimming with compassion.

Distressingly, the story is based on a real-life early 2000s event, but through the specificity of that experience, there’s a universality that will be relatable in some way.

Even if it literally didn’t happen to you or someone you know, there’s an unfortunate familiarity in what these characters are talking about. But talk about it they – and we – must.

Rating: 4.5/5

Women Talking is in cinemas now

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