The first thing you notice about Sarah Polley’s Women Talking is the color palette. It’s desaturated in the extreme — isolated shots even look almost black-and-white. Pages of the press notes are devoted to discussing this choice (among other points, Polley’s identification of the narrative quality as that of a fable is reiterated). Regardless of intention, the choice is striking, and for many will prove alienating. It’s too bad that this overt aesthetic choice presents a potential obstacle to engaging with the film — it’s one that’s easy to regard as “important” on the basis of its content, but more so it’s a fascinating exploration of faith.
Based on Miriam Toews’ novel of the same name, Polley’s film is largely set in a single hay loft, following a group that consists of two families of Mennonite women determining how to move on after they finally catch the men in the colony who have been sexually assaulting them for years. Though their specific goal is to determine whether to stay and fight or leave the colony, these options are merely the practical considerations, and the questions the women and the film ask are considerably larger. Can faith be a virtue when it has facilitated such harm to the women and their children? Can feminine strength still be drawn from a belief system built implicitly and explicitly to uphold patriarchy?
Among the cast, Rooney Mara as Ona, pregnant as a result of one of the assaults, is given by a hair the largest role, but also the quietest of the name actors, frequently functioning as a voice of reason (often to the other characters’ dismay). Claire Foy as Ona’s headstrong sister Salome and Jessie Buckley as Mariche of the Friesen family are given more opportunity for theatrics, and though both are able to thread that needle without drifting into extreme emoting, they are most affecting in their subtler moments. The rest of the cast of women are uniformly strong, each given moments to become the focus.
Also present at the meeting is August Epp (Ben Whishaw), asked by Ona to take the minutes despite none of the women being literate. Epp’s role is the largest departure Polley makes from the novel, which takes his minutes as its form. Rather than retain Whishaw as a narrator, Polley shifts that role to Autje, Mariche’s daughter played by Kate Hallett. As a result, Whishaw sometimes seems to be compensating for the comparative thinness of August’s character in his performance, which is the least consistent in the film, though his scenes opposite Mara and Foy are some of its strongest.
Many of the other changes Polley makes from the novel are cuts likely motivated by the length and scope of the film, though her portrayal of the character Melvin is substantially different. Having changed his pronouns in the wake of the assaults, Melvin’s queerness is left fairly vague in the novel, and in affirming his transness here, Polley clarifies that it’s not an effect of sexual assault even though his coming out was motivated by the trauma. It’s a necessary shift in the portrayal of a minor character, and one that illustrates how much our cultural awareness of gender identity has shifted in even the few years since the book was published.
The question begged by any adaptation is what the new form can provide to the material. Sometimes it’s enough that a film can reach a larger audience, and that may well be the case here. Though the narrative decisions Polley makes all have a positive or neutral effect, what’s less clear is how her formal decisions enhance Toews’ themes. That’s not to suggest that the film is bad — it isn’t — nor is it necessarily unpleasant to look at. But while Polley has earned plenty of goodwill across her limited directorial work, and it’s nice to see her jumping back in with material as challenging and thorny as this, Women Talking never quite makes a strong argument for its translation to the film medium.
Originally published as part of TIFF 2022 — Distpach 7.