Talk to the women in your life. More importantly, listen to them, let them talk to you. Have they experienced public abuse? It seems like a certainty. This is a sad fact of modern life or life as it has always been for half the population. In Miriam Toews’ novel Women Talking (2018), all of the women living in a Mennonite colony have been physically assaulted by men. Tragically, it’s based on a true story and extrapolated into a fictional diorama of women and how women have to deal with trauma resulting from men.
In Sarah Polley’s adaptation, shot in desaturated hues, we must stop and listen to women. It is a nice change from how movies usually go. You can kind of pick the title apart for how it sounds but we should have more patience for what it means. There aren’t enough stories where we just allow women to have the entire conversation on their terms without being interrupted by the wants and interests of men. Too often, women do suffer in the cinema, and then men in the story play judge, jury, and executioner. Doesn’t it also feel awkward for me, a dude, to essentially be breaking this down, mansplaining women’s pain as it were, and rendering a middling verdict? I would like you to also read women talking about this movie, I’m sure they have a more primary perspective you can glean from their words.
I am also a fan of the book. Sarah Polley evidently is too. Her new movie follows the pages essentially note-for-note, tightening things as movies based on books must do, but ultimately leading down the same roads with the same results. What works in the film’s favor is the bold ensemble of women collected in this Mennonite barn — and like the book — what I like about the recording of the meeting is that it is the only voice of men we receive, one that’s sympathetic certainly, but also one who acts as a secretary taking the minutes of the meeting, another kind of role-reversal.
What doesn’t work is the desaturation. Because this film will have a short run in theaters and then play on streaming in perpetuity, it does not make very much sense to favor all of the color-washed tones and dark hues. They may represent the repression of the women but they look really terrible visually, streamed from anywhere. It’s a choice a lot of made-for-streaming movies also awkwardly make, choosing gray-tone like its the streaming house’s visual identity, perhaps because it is easy and that must be the service’s notes. But here, it feels like there shouldn’t be those notes for Sarah Polley and like the film could be more vivid in its own aesthetic design.
Instead, what unfolds is a fairly note-for-note reading of a good and serious story but you might wonder how it is cinematic or how it benefits richly from the format it’s in. It doesn’t. Not really. It makes you want to read the book. Having read the book, it doesn’t really make me want for anything, especially not to watch it again, and it’s not the kind of book you could re-read either, and if you’ve watched the movie first, it would seem to dampen the literal text that you ought to be reading instead of watching it.
If the film does have color, it is borrowed from Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score, which does uplift the material at several turns and fills in the audiovisual gaps left by the cinematography, which feels flat, claustrophobic, and slightly shapeless. The music is the opposite. It is full-bodied, confidently assertive, and makes space for the women in the film in the way the visual construction should also be approaching, but often fails to do impactfully. It is a loss to use the score here where there seems to be a better film right underneath it available to Sarah Polley, who is very talented, and her ensemble cast, who could be very good with a few more risks to make a movie out of the text.
Every year, I vote in the Seattle Film Critics Society end-of-year poll. We have to decide on a few outsider categories (from normal Oscar selections). One of the most curious is the ensemble category. This year, I think the ensemble films have generally been overburdened and likely have found a lot of difficulty in being conceived during a pandemic. I have to imagine that difficulty is true of every film coming out right now. Maybe Women Talking also found the same challenges. It doesn’t show very much from the casting (I think Best Ensemble is effectively a more intensive casting award). The ensemble is led with some confidence by Rooney Mara with key support from Frances McDormand, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, and several other very strong women actors. The collection of their work here is not insignificant. You do end up wishing there were a movie behind them and their bold director and the beautiful score that supported the collective presence the movie puts forward. Unfortunately, it falls just a bit short in key categories and comes out as a muted film that could have really made some unique choices to elevate its text but relies too fully on a good book to be a good movie, yet it still just plays as a good book read for a camera.