Houston Cinema Arts Festival: ‘Women Talking’ Review
The following is part of our coverage of the Houston Cinema Arts Festival.
Women Talking. Titles don’t get more self-explanatory than that. Actor turned prolific writer-director Sarah Polley’s film centers around women discussing what to do when it’s discovered the men in their Mennonite community have been raping the women in their sleep. They have three options: leave their community, stay and fight, or forgive. So yes, Women Talking is ostensibly about women talking, but it also aims to serve as a microcosm of the female experience. Whether or not it succeeds in its accuracy I can’t fully judge as a man. What I can judge is how successful it is as a narrative and how its message comes across. Despite a myriad of issues that are hard to look past, the strength of the ensemble holds the film together.
Polley assembles a murderer’s row of talent. Rooney Mara. Frances McDormand. Claire Foy. Judith Ivy. Jessie Buckley. Even Ben Whishaw gets in there as a well-learned man who is invited to take minutes at their meeting. As is to be expected from actors of their caliber, their performances are sensational. Each does a good job of making their characters mouthpieces for specific viewpoints. Foy as the representation of righteous rage. Mara as grace. Jessie Buckley embodying a defeatist attitude, et cetera et cetera. Women Talking is at its best when it just lets its stars do its thing, which thankfully is most of the time.
In that way, Women Talking is a stage play in the skin of a feature film. This is rarely a bad thing in this specific case. Polley draws you in with a series of pointed, impassioned monologues that you can imagine people using in the future for auditions. There’s a nice balance of tone as well, with the very serious subject matter broken up by moments of humanity. Meanwhile, the pace really allows you to settle in with these characters, kind of like you’re part of the conversation. In its more cinematic aspects, though, Women Talking is hit-or-miss. A wildly overdone sepia tone-like look completely smothers what seems to be excellent cinematography by Luc Montpellier. The blown-out color makes it incredibly difficult to try and pay attention to the film without wondering “why does it look like this?”.
Moreover, there are some deep issues under the hood as well. Women Talking may be resoundingly feminist, but – at least in terms of optics – it’s hardly intersectional. There’s not a single non-white woman in the cast. Sure, one could make the excuse that because the film is about Mennonites, it’s historically accurate. That case falls apart when you take into consideration that Polley isn’t much of a stickler for detail in that regard.
In fact, the film bills itself as “an act of female imagination” in its opening, and the use of Mennonites at best seems to be a way for the film to put the central women in a scenario where they face dire oppression. At worst, it’s a way to justify the lack of diversity. If this is an act of female imagination, then why couldn’t the producers of this film imagine anyone non-white in this story?
Aside from its obvious flaws, Women Talking remains a strong character piece. If you’re here from phenomenal acting and writing, as well as a constant rotation of pointed monologues that reflect the world we live in today, then Polley has crafted a film that will suit your needs. Undeniably, it’s a movie rich with meaning and purpose, even if it isn’t as inclusive as it should be. –James Preston Poole
Women Talking will release on December 23, 2022 in theaters.