“What follows is an act of female imagination.”
After a prologue that’s paced like a pulse popping into tachycardia, these onscreen words introduce Women Talking. They also invade and incite the first film in 10 years from writer-director Sarah Polley. Most of all, they perhaps invert any initial impression of this incendiary ensemble drama, in which the women of an isolated religious colony debate and determine their response to the revelation of rampant sexual assault in their community.
These assaults have become a pervasive pestilence with no boundary of rage or age. And while the men responsible are incarcerated in a nearby town, they will soon be out on bail. Thus, the women have two days to choose whether the crucible is one through which to craft a more progressive colony, fall back on tenets of forgiveness in a faith only they hold dear, or just leave.
Based on a novel by Miriam Toews, Women Talking barrels through this setup so swiftly you’d be forgiven for worrying whether it will simply burn through big ideas at the expense of smaller details that would give it the shape of lives and souls. And there is disappointment in how it treats one supporting character’s gripping gender dysphoria as little more than a ballad-like blip.
But Women Talking is otherwise a searing story rooted in the semantics and semiotics of trauma and survival. What it’s not is a translated tale of modern-day #MeToo. There is no woman from the colony who has left and returned bearing a bounty of empowering encouragement relative to the world they know. This is a collective creating a language through which to reconcile awful behavior leveled upon them, to communicate and codify the grief, guilt and foreign sense of hope swirling in their souls. And it befits Polley’s purposeful failure to fix their outcome to any one concrete connotation of the word “imagination.”
Imagination is an unmistakable motif in Women Talking. Before its use onscreen, “wild imagination” is one of many gaslit explanations given by the women’s abusers for their physical and mental wounds (along with God, Satan and plain old vindictive lies). Later, a male teacher tasked to transcend the colony’s tyrannical traditions invokes imagination as an integral element of a successfully compassionate education. Imagination is also the impetus of an innocuous, evergreen pop song that rings out across the colony at one particular moment.
For these women of the colony — embodied (among others) by Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey and Sheila McCarthy — imagination can represent inspiration toward something better. Something different and certainly scarier, but as one of them says: “Hope for the unknown is better than hatred for the familiar.” But imagination can also represent pure invention, a comfortable but completely fabricated escape from unfathomable reality.
So, is the imagination that inspires Women Talking an act of inspiration or an act of invention? Polley’s staunch refusal to completely claim either one helps Women Talking fit thematically with her previous films — the withering cycle of beginnings and endings of Away from Her, a wanderlust of womanhood from Take This Waltz and, of course, the illusory nature of truth in her documentary, Stories We Tell.
It also lends a mournful edge to Women Talking’s concluding moments. “Your story will be different from ours,” one woman asserts to another, disembodied from dialogue of the debate and across an indeterminate period of time. That much is true. What we don’t know — and can’t know, as Polley shrewdly understands — is whether that story will have a happy ending or perhaps just follow a different path of cruelty. Another moment in the film soars on the power of a raised fist, but it’s solely in the context of navigation that will make a choice to touch the infinite and unknown just a bit less frightening.
However you frame Women Talking‘s invocation of imagination in your mind, numerous elements are hard to forget.
The cast is uniformly excellent; like last year’s Mass, no one is more easily extricable from another. Of course, they fall into generalized lines of ideology and narrative. Ona (Mara) is the unwed pragmatist whose unborn child will likely wind up in the hands of her abuser if they stay. Salome (Foy) is the reactionary who would rather court eternal damnation for murder than let any man again molest her or her 4-year-old daughter. Mariche (Buckley) is the skeptic questioning the value of individual experiences amid so much collective abuse. But there is a distinct dynamism to every woman’s perspective, which represents the mind’s malleable response to trauma, reflects Polley’s effective use of economy across a 104-minute running time, and affords all of these actresses latitude for legibly heartbreaking humanity.
Ben Whishaw also gets perhaps his best role yet as August, whose family was long ago excommunicated from the colony for daring to challenge its curdled ideologies. August is that new teacher who has returned, and Whishaw lets us see how the burden of responsibility for reshaping the colony, and at certainly irreversible cost to him, plays havoc with August’s mind.
On the craft side, composer Hildur Guðnadóttir elicits warm timbre and tonality in her plaintive but powerful score. Even if one suddenly vertiginous camera movement calls too much attention to itself, a drained, desaturated palette from cinematographer Luc Montpellier makes Women Talking feel like a Wyeth painting of a Goliath battle. He also captures shafts of sunshine in a way that evokes how cracks can, and must, make room for the light here.
Women Talking never feels spatially trapped in the barn where the film’s banter takes place, either. Much as 2020’s One Night in Miami, this film opens up with just the right amount of expanse. Polley’s script also maintains sight of the women’s humor as a weapon and shield while emphasizing the importance of silent gaps between talk and action as the space in which to process before proceeding. Quiet can be equally momentous; just because something goes unspoken does not mean it goes unknown.
The result is a comprehensive ethnography of regret, rage and re-envisioned purpose — equal parts the imprinting of language, the imparting of wisdom and the impossibility of ever really knowing what lies next no matter how far ahead you can see. Imagination is wonderful. Imagination is terrifying. No matter how you define it, Women Talking‘s act of female imagination propels one of 2022’s most thoughtfully crafted films.
Women Talking screened at the 2022 Heartland International Film Festival. It is scheduled to open in limited release on Friday, Dec. 2, and later expand to additional theatres.