The gap separating Sarah Polley’s last picture, Stories We Tell in 2012, from her latest, Women Talking, has left plenty of time for anticipation to build: Sarah Polley! 10 years! Her return to the big screen after biding her time with a Netflix miniseries! There’s a narrative behind Polley’s unintended recess, taken for varied reasons that include job paucity and an injury that kept her from work for about half the decade. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and Women Talking’s release feels exactly like that: A release, a long-awaited liberation from director purgatory for Polley and a breath of fresh air for her audience.
With this in mind, the film’s problems add up to one major king bummer. There’s joy to take in Polley stepping behind the camera again, but none in the movie’s failures, given Polley’s immense talent as a filmmaker and her extended absence from filmmaking. The poetry, grace, and warm humor she brought to Stories We Tell, Take This Waltz (2011), and Away From Her (2006), is in Women Talking too, but delivered with stilted form, like a forced smile upon receiving bad news with the expectation that the recipient keep their chin up.
Women Talking has mostly bad news to go around. A party of women gather in a farmhouse settled on their remote Mennonite colony with a clear objective: making a judgment over whether or not to leave. The colony’s men have drugged and raped the colony’s women countless times over countless years and manufactured various flavors of bullshit to explain the attacks away: ghostly visitations, demonic abuse, or female hysterics, because apparently one can be made heavy with child through the power of sheer imagination. The film begins after the truth has been laid bare to all, and the women discuss and ponder and argue with one another: Ona (Rooney Mara), Mariche (Jessie Buckley), Salome (Claire Foy), Greta (Sheila McCarthy), Agata (Judith Ivey), Mejal (Michelle McLeod), and their youngest members, Nietje (Liv McNeil), and Autje (Kate Hallett).
In adapting Miriam Toews’ same-named book, Polley switches the narrator from August (Ben Whishaw), the designated Only Good Man, to Autje, a change with little effect on the plot other than an overall reduction in August’s grating dewy-eyed bleating. He’s there to count the minutes of the women’s meetings and lament the evils men do. That’s all. As the title promises, the film centers on women’s plight, and predominantly consists of them talking to, and sometimes at one another. The trouble comes with how they talk about what they’re talking about; the circumstances these women live in are appalling, without a doubt, and the contextualization of those circumstances hit home on political and pop-cultural grounds, from the overturning of Roe v Wade to the popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale. Even without that context, the subjects at hand in Women Talking will be familiar to any savvy audience. But Polley’s characters speak to these subjects in the language of social media bickering, with the pedantry of college freshman newly enlightened by Feminist Theory 101. The movie’s ideas about consent, harm, victimhood, and cycles of patriarchy are well-worn in contemporary discourse, and, while vital, go unexplored in the movie beyond their mere presentation. Neither Polley nor her actors make an effort to dig beneath text for rich, resonant meaning or a reason to care about them beyond the bare fact of their atrocity. It’s important to distinguish between Women Talking’s themes and its execution, and how the former demand confronting while the latter fumbles that confrontation.
Ona, Salome, Mariche, Greta, and Agata each have their own approaches to and thoughts about the better merits of departing the colony or staying: It’s a choice between safety in the unknown or comfort in the known. This is, of course, a difficult choice that necessitates difficult conversations, but the film is mostly constructed as a roundabout, spinning circles around the same points over and over with the characters showing little growth above their personal philosophies. No one faces profound change in Women Talking. The characters remain static. But the neutrality at play in Polley’s wanting drama is outmatched by aesthetic choices, described kindly as “baffling” and bluntly as “ugly.” Coming from a filmmaker like Polley, capable of finding beauty in life-altering upheaval and heartbreak, the icy, desaturated imagery that makes up the movie are a shock. The intent is self-explanatory: To make a visual metaphor out of the relentless oppression and suffering these women endure every day, a reflection of the sameness of their collective existence. Polley almost certainly doesn’t mean to talk down to her audiences by overdetermining her characters’ misery through excessive color grading. But the horrors of Women Talking would, perhaps, benefit from accentuation through a more varied color palette, the better to emphasize what is lost to those subjugated by systems of oppression. With greater vibrancy, the exchanges Polley’s characters share might be elevated above their banality, though her blocking, imbalanced at best and functional at worst, doesn’t do Luc Montpellier’s cinematography any favors, either; they undermine the performances, too, which, like Polley’s filmmaking, turn uncharacteristic of their performers. Mara, Foy, and Buckley are among the brightest actors of their generation, but together they’re hopelessly lost in the muddle of Polley’s compositions.
It’s the greatest disappointment that Women Talking has so much at stake as both the next phase of Polley’s career and a statement piece about gender politics and sexual violence at a time when explorations of both are essential, and then speaks without any trace of urgency. A movie like this shouldn’t be so ambivalent, much less so harsh on the eye.
Director: Sarah Polley
Writer: Sarah Polley
Starring: Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivy, Sheila McCarthy, Ben Whishaw, Michelle McLeod, Kate Hallett, Liv McNeil, Frances McDormand
Release Date: December 23, 2022
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.