Sarah Polly is one of those directors who seems to have a giant reputation despite having kind of a small body of work. Prior to 2022 she had only directed three movies, one of them a documentary, and there was a long ten year gap in there as well leading into her new project. Her first movie, Away From Her, was likely her strongest work up to this point, albeit not necessarily a movie that lingers in my memory. I don’t know, it’s a movie I watched on a Netflix DVD in my sophomore dorm room, which is maybe not the best environment to empathize with an elderly woman’s battles with Alzheimer’s but I remember it having solid performances among other strong qualities. I missed her follow-up Take this Waltz, whose reputation is of a movie that’s good but inessential. Then there’s Stories We Tell, her documentary about her own parents and an affair one of them had. People talk about that documentary in absolutely rapturous terms and I’ve got to say I really don’t get it. The situation at its center does not strike me as being overly exceptional or interesting beyond the fact that a moderately famous actress/director is involved in it and its attempt to turn it all into some Rashomon-esque delve into the nature of subjectivity over the most minor of discrepancies in peoples stories did not connect with me at all. So, I guess I’m a bit of a Polly skeptic, but that’s not to say I’d given up on her. Away From Her alone was a well-crafted enough film that I felt like she had the potential to give us something special, and finally I think she just might have with her new film Women Talking.
The film is set in more or less modern day, but in a remote Mennonite community (seemingly) somewhere in North America, and given the Mennonite’s traditions this essentially makes the film look like a 19th Century period piece for much of its runtime. The film begins when it’s revealed that a large number of the women in the community had been drugged and sexually assaulted by various men in the community and had been for several years with the women’s concerns being dismissed as the actions of ghosts or devils or “feeble-mindedness.” This time though, the perpetrators were caught red handed and were arrested by the outside police force. The most of the community’s men, however, seem to be standing by the perpetrators and have gone to town in order to bail them out under some religious conviction that anyone cast out of the community will be damned to hell. With them gone, the town’s women convene to try to figure out what they’ll do: will they stay as if nothing happened, stay and “fight,” or will they leave and try to found some new colony elsewhere. Much of the film then, aside from some flashbacks, consists of the deliberations certain representative women have when making this decision and leads to some pretty tense debates.
Sarah Polly has long been something of an “actor’s director” and that certainly carries over to the impressive ensemble here but with this movie she also takes a noticeable step up as a visual stylist. She and cinematographer Luc Montpellier shoot the film in an ultrawide 2.76:1 aspect ratio, the same ratio that Quentin Tarantino used for The Hateful Eight and like that movie it’s a choice that is intriguing given that this is a movie that ostensibly takes place primarily in one large room. In fact one could easily mistake this for having been an adaptation of a play, but it’s not, it’s based on a novel by Miriam Toews. Toews is a woman who was herself raised in a Mennonite community but left the community when she was eighteen. The novel, though fictionalized, is inspired by real events that transpired at a Mennonite community in Bolivia. That community (which, like most Mennonite communities, is largely populated by European emigres who speak a form of German rather than the local tongue) experienced a very similar set of attacks which led to a similar reckoning. However, it does not take a genius to realize very soon into Women Talking that Sarah Polly does not view it as truly a movie about Mennonites and instead views the conversations they’re having as being extremely relevant to women around the world, especially in the wake of #MeToo. And as the title implies, it kind of exists as a medium by which its authors can write very direct conversations around the kind of conversations survivors could have when facing systemic abuse and trying to find solutions.
The decision at the film’s center is whether to stay and maintain the status-quo (the anti-feminist solution), stay and “fight” (the feminist solution), or leave the compound entirely (the radical solution, at least within the logic of this society). The basic practicalities of these solutions, while not entirely ignored, are not necessarily the emphasis. The film is a touch vague about what “stay and fight” means. It isn’t clear if that just means trying to change the society through some sort of peaceful resistance or if they intend to literally take up arms. If it’s the former then they don’t really get into the exact methods and if it’s the latter they aren’t exactly stockpiling weapons or anything. The film also doesn’t necessarily go into every logistical challenge of leaving; these women are depicted as illiterate and are said to have not even seen a map of the (unspecified) area they’re in and needless to say they don’t appear to have money saved up for some sort of real estate purchase that would allow them to set up a new compound. But this is not emphasized in large part because these aren’t really conversations about logistics; they’re conversations about philosophy and about feelings around this situation, especially given that many of the people talking are traumatized victims of violence and abuse. That trauma is central, some of the women here are very angry and vengeful, some are just mournful about the whole situation and some kind of go back and forth between different attitudes in a sort of complex stew of emotions.
On the periphery is Ben Wishaw’s character, the one man in the film with a speaking role and someone that the women in question basically seem to view as being apart from the other men that they’re essentially in opposition to. He’s the town’s school teacher and apparently does have some university education and he’s been invited to take minutes for this deliberation as the one literate character present. As such he’s kind of a point of view character and observer but occasionally speaks up in the deliberations, in ways that are sometimes welcome and sometimes not by the various women. You can tell he’s rather conflicted about his place there, as are the women and to some extent so is the movie. That is likely appropriate given that society in general is kind of not sure what role male allies are supposed to have in the wake of #MeToo. This probably isn’t the only thing the film is willingly conflicted about as it’s kind of a movie that’s asking a lot of questions that society hasn’t really answered and is about characters who are left with a similarly uncertain future.
This is in many ways a film that feels like it could be in dialogue with another of the year’s high profile releases, Todd Field’s Tár, which also sort of comments on #MeToo if not by name though from the perspective of a perpetrator rather than from victims. The women here are in many ways more conflicted and thoughtful that the title character of that film, in part because they care about people besides themselves. Though Tár is perhaps a bit more directly about #MeToo as it existed between 2017 and 2022, I think that movie is going to be a little more universally recognizable as long as powerful abusers continue to exist. Women Talking, by contrast, feels to me much more directly reflective of this very moment of widespread reckoning and all the messy feelings and conflicting arguments that it conjures up. But as it does this it never loses track of the fact that this is a movie about specific people in a specific circumstance whose situation is not always going to be one hundred percent applicable to the wider conversation. It tells a very human story above all else and it does it in a milieu that’s pretty unique and while I would exactly call the movie a one-of-a-kind revolution or anything it is a movie that doesn’t follow an overly familiar template and makes for a lean and intense drama that’s staged in a strong and appealing fashion. In short it’s the major work that I’ve been waiting for Sarah Polley to make and really live up to all the praise she’s been lavished with.
****1/2 out of Five