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WOMAN TALKING (2022)  l  Universal Pictures Canada  |  December, 2022

Starring: Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Ben Whishaw, Frances McDormand, Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod

Director: Sarah Polley

Sarah Polley’s fearless adaptation of Miriam Toews’ acclaimed novel about a cloistered world where women struggle with an epidemic of abuse.

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TIFF REVIEW BY: Darren Zakus

Women Talking is an absolutely breathtaking film from director and writer Sarah Polley, covering such important subject matter with grace and a truly inspirational tone that features some of the best performances of the year. 

 

I had been hearing rave reviews about this film since it debuted at Telluride earlier this month, so I was excited to finally sit down and sye what everyone was talking about at the Toronto International Film Festival. And I can now say without a doubt that I have seen one of the best films of the year, because I am speechless after what I have just experienced. Canadian director and writer Sarah Polley has adapted Miriam Toews’ best selling novel about a group of women in a Mennonite community grappling with their reality and faith after they have experienced a string of violent rapes from the men of their community, and its a tour de force adaptaion. 

 

It’s an interesting setting that the conversation takes place in, being a Mennonite colony where the men typically have the power and the women’s voices are not heard as much, providing a truly incredible discourse as the characters explore their faith and what they should do to end the violence they are facing. The film deals with tough subject matter, and Polley does not for a second shy away from it nor does she sugar coat it. But, it’s the way she tells the story that makes it so powerful. She refuses to show the men who perpetrated these acts, instead focusing on the women who are grappling with the acts of violence they have faced and how they have come together to move forward. Also, by changing the film’s narrator from the one male present like the novel, to various of the female characters of the film gives the power to the women of the story telling their own tale. It’s a highly intelligent choice which allows the story to highlight the horrific events, but instead shifts the focus to how these women want to see their world and the power they have to shape it with the decision they have to make. In her screenplay, while the setting of the film is without a doubt a Mennonite community based on the production design and the names of the characters, Polley refuses to use the word “Mennonite”. By doing so, Polley gives the film a universal feel so it could apply to any group of individuals, not limiting this to an issue within the Mennonite community and to create the fable of democracy and women power that she set out to make.

 

Helping to bring her extraordinary vision to life is a truly all star cast featuring Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Rooney Mara, Frances McDormand, Ben Whishaw, Judith Ivey and Sheila McCarthy. Foy and Buckley are absolutely magnificent as the two main characters of the film, Salome and Mariche. Both characters are strong women, each with their own opinions about what the women of their colony should do based on their personalities and their individual experiences. While it’s an ensemble film as the entire cast shares the screen for the majority of the film, Foy and Buckley consistently breakout of the ensemble with stunning moments of raw emotion and determination as they fight for what they believe in. There are moments of pure strength as they both fight for their beliefs, but also moments of true vulnerability as they strip down to their characters’ core and grapple with the morally and emotionally complex problems their characters are facing, unlike anything we have seen from these two actresses to date. Looking into my Oscars crystal ball, I easily see both of them being in the conversation for Best Actress as they give two of the best performances of the year. 

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Equally as impressive is Rooney Mara as Ona, one of the women of the colony who was raped and is now pregnant. Mara’s performance is passionate and tender, a wonderful contrast to the fierce Foy and Buckley, brimming with optimism and hope for the future of their colony. I have always loved Mara’s performances, but there is something truly special about her turn as Ona as she brings a raw vulnerability that I have never seen from her to date. She too will also be in the Oscar race, though I see her falling in the Supporting Actress category as her character is very much a supporting role in comparison to Foy and Buckley. Then, there is Ben Whishaw as August, the school teacher the women have take the minutes of their meeting, the only prominent male character in the film. He gives an absolutely incredible performance that is supportive of the female characters while providing hope to both them and the audience that the men of the community are not all monsters, and in fact can live harmoniously with the women. Whishaw’s warmth and compassion fits perfectly into the story Polley is telling, and he has fantastic chemistry with Mara throughout the film. But it is in his final scenes with Foy where he truly shines, and like so many of his female co-stars, launches himself into the Oscar race for Best Supporting Actor. 

 

Complementing the performances and screenplay is Polley’s excellent direction and creative control over the film. While initially intended to be shot in black and white, Polley utilizes a colour palette that gives the film the visual look of a faded postcard to represent a world already gone, which is gorgeous to look at in every single shot. While there is some quick editing in the first act of the film that is jarring, the editing finds its pacing and allows the film to deliver some truly magnificent sweeping shots of the colony while focusing the camera on the ensemble cast to give each actor their moment to shine on camera. Then there is the absolutely beautiful musical score from the incredible Hildur Guðnadóttir. Guðnadóttir’s score is based around a simple and lush musical theme that captures the sorrow of these women and what is in their hearts as they reflect on their situation. But, it is in the different orchestrations of this theme that Guðnadóttir injects the film with hope and the ideal that these women are striving for as the score takes majestic flight, especially in the final act as only Guðnadóttir can do. It is easily one of the best musical scores of the year in the way it effortlessly captures the entire emotional spectrum of the film. 

 

Polley ties together every aspect of the film, delivering one of the most moving and hopeful films of the year, which is a true testament to her efforts as both a director and screenwriter as this could have been an incredibly melodramatic and depressing film given the subject matter at play. There are moments of pure joy, moments that will have audiences bursting with laughter, as well as moments that will give those tear ducts a workout as the film finds emotional honesty and rawness within the complex issues it tackles. There is no doubt in my mind that Women Talking will be a major contender this awards season, because out of the over thirty films I have seen this year at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, it is easily not only one of the best of the festival’s lineup, but one of the most impactful and memorable films of the year. Under the talented and brilliant direction of Sarah Polley, Women Talking boasts incredible performances from its ensemble cast with the lead of Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Rooney Mara and Ben Whishaw, bringing to life a truly hopeful and beautiful look at an ideal for the future and women’s place in society that is without a doubt one of the most phenomenal films of the year.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5