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Women Talking ★★★★★



Director: Sarah Polley 

Cast: Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Ben Wishaw, Frances McDormand 

Release: February 10, 2023 

Child, wife, widow — women are everything the world does and doesn’t want them to be. They are an entire entity, omnipotent in their ability to quietly hold life together when it lashes out to bruise and scar. It’s an unfathomed point of normalcy that 109 minutes will never be enough to harness the breadth and scope of womanhood, yet Sarah Polley effortlessly transforms rural plight into the strife of the everywoman. Women Talking may just be exactly that, but goes above and beyond to sit with what’s been there all along.

In an unnamed religious sect, a group of women vote on how best to deal with a continued slew of sexual violence stemming from the community’s men. When no conclusive decision is reached, women from three households are elected to discuss the pros and cons of staying to fight or leaving. Among them, Salome (Claire Foy) seeks the immediacy of violent revenge, Mariche (Jessie Buckley) commits to change as a lost cause, while Ona (Rooney Mara) possesses a hope that could see the women through to a new future. 

Taking on both the enormity of women’s collective experiences and the complex history of religion is never going to be a clear path to follow. With the success of the 2018 novel of the same name, there’s a potential framework in which to operate. Even so, Women Talking is distinctly its own separate being. With an acclaimed ensemble that offers tour-de-force performances from start to finish, the immediate nuances and layers aren’t just implied but are cold-heartedly stared in the face. There’s no Hollywood romanticisation of the blood, bruises, and continued mental trauma that women face on a daily basis, nor of the internal misogyny generations of women become wrapped up in without seeing a sense of alternative. A never-ending debate with no tangible structure of ‘correctness’ plays out in a sometimes scathing formation of sisterhood, proving why the act of leaving is never a straightforward fix or option. Men are brought in to watch without opinion, children are quick to vocialise what adult fears have taught can’t be said. It’s a mindblowing and impressive feat for a two-storey barn in fields that stretch to horizons — so secular yet attuned to the wants and needs of women from all walks of life. 

It’s a story that could easily play out on a stage at The National. Set primarily in one solitary location, the power and drive of the tale stem from the strength of its script, accented with intentional pops of comedy that break tension that’s shared yet inexcusable. But there’s something about its cinematic setting that allows for a private sense of introspection — either empathising with violation or wondering what part you might have played in it. The chosen colour gradient finds depth in the shades of dark eyes and reddened skin, sharing affliction in its starkest form. Thanks largely to Polley, complexity easily finds its home in the barren. 

In a subjective light, Women Talking is a work of pure perfection. Each second of its 109-minute runtime is used with intention, each pause of breath represents a moment that has been mulled over time and time again. In one potent scene, the hit Monkees song “Daydream Believer” shows a collective that will no longer stand up to come, but is yet to find itself ready to leave. That act of leaving might not solve everything, but perhaps it will stop the why-not from being asked entirely.

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