The Monkees’ silly song “Daydream Believer” lends a jarring punctuation mark to Sarah Polley’s Women Talking. The ditty appears near the midpoint of the film and offers a moment of necessary levity. It appears as a car rides into a small Mennonite community to take numbers for the 2010 census. Only women–or, mostly women–form the population that day. The young girls in the community run energetically to the foreign rush of pop music. Elder women mostly scowl, as the lyrics waft into their windows and ruffle their laundry.
“Cheer up, sleepy Jean
Oh, what can it mean
To a daydream believer
And a homecoming queen?
You once thought of me
As a white knight on his steed
Now, you know how happy I can be
Oh, and our good times start and end.”
“Daydream Believer” plays ironically as the women contemplate a serious change in their lives. Their men are no longer white knights, but violent rapists. The women, however, have spoken. They realize they have three choice: stay and do nothing, fight back, or leave.
Women Talking adapts the novel of the same name by Miriam Toews and it gives audiences what they bargained for. There are indeed women talking. Polley’s adaptation is richly cinematic despite the premise’s inclination towards the theatrical. As women from three families debate their options for recourse after they are repeatedly drugged and raped by the men of the community: i.e. their husbands, neighbours, brothers, and sons. Women Talking marks a formidable return to the director’s seat for Polley after nearly a decade since her previous feature, the masterful documentary Stories We Tell. (Her absence was largely caused by a massive concussion.) It is an exceptionally powerful work told with sensitivity and care, and with the utmost respect for her actors young and old as they give voice to the women’s stories.
The Great Debaters
In one corner of the debate is the team for doing nothing. Janz (Frances McDormand) advocates that it’s the women’s duty to forgive their men. Entry to the kingdom of heaven demands it. Janz wears the scars of life in this patriarchal community. She is hardened and intensely unforgiving despite what she preaches.
The “fight” corner, meanwhile, features heavyweight Salome (Claire Foy). Sickened and shaken by the violence committed against her and her young child, Salome will do anything to protect her daughter. She explosively gets Old Testament during the proceedings. Unlike Janz, Salome favours not a compassionate good, but a wrathful one.
Leading the fight to leave, finally, is Great (Sheila McCarthy). The community elder is a devastating voice who articulates that it is too dangerous to stay when their sworn protectors are the aggressors. Moreover, she counters the argument for forgiveness, noting forgiveness means little when it is sought from the person who wronged you.
Women from the families argue the pros and cons of each option and offer swing votes between the choice to fight and the choice to leave. Mariche, (Jessie Buckley), however, pleads for the option to stay and forgive, even after Janz withdraws from the debate. She shows how women in the community are expected to accept their fates and submit to their husbands, be they violent or compassionate. Ona (Rooney Mara), on the other hand, allows herself to be persuaded. She’s the most active listener in this group of women talking and a voice of reason. Moreover, she is an inquisitor who actively asks questions to engage her fellow women in conversation.
The Unreliable Narrator
A man also observes the proceedings. August (Ben Whishaw) is the lone innocent male in the community, having returned after the men were arrested for their violent rapes. August, the schoolteacher, acts as note taker to record minutes for the women. The scribe is the key element in which Women Talking deviates from Toews’ novel in an otherwise faithful adaptation. In the book, the text serves as August’s minutes of the debate. He’s therefore an unreliable narrator as he recounts the women-centric event from a male perspective. August also mansplains to the women throughout the book, whereas he is a sensitive soul in the film thanks to Whishaw’s delicately layered performance.
While fans of the book might miss the unreliable narrator, Polley’s adaptation resolutely favours the feminist perspectives of Women Talking. The film harnesses the full potential of the opportunity to afford women room to speak. The debate offers a forum for the women to have profound conversations about life, love, compassion, and forgiveness as they weigh their options. One senses how long these voices have yearned for such a right to speak openly and passionately.
The Culmination of Polley’s Work
Thematically, Women Talking is the culmination of Polley’s work as a dramatic artist. It extends the themes of love and fidelity tackled in her dramas Away from Her and Take This Waltz and embraces the necessary pain of breaking free in order to be true to oneself. Polley’s adaptation also resonates strongly with many themes of her other 2022 great work, the collection of essays Run Towards the Danger. For one, her adaptation is highly attune and sensitive to the physical and psychological violence committed against the women. Devastating intercuts show the women reeling from violence: punched-out teeth, black eyes, and bloody bedsheets.
There are strong echoes of Polley’s harrowing essay, “The Woman Who Stayed Silent” about the pain that keeping mum caused her during the trials in which disgraced broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi was accused of assaulting multiple women. As the women of Polley’s film unpack the gravity of their situation, Women Talking becomes the ultimate #MeToo movie. Polley gives voice to survivor’s strength and confronts the advice she received to stay silent when people told her that speaking up would be more traumatic than the rape itself. The women articulate the brutal hell of their situation through emotionally shattering performances that convey every ache in their bodies.
The Ensemble of the Year
Polley assembles a formidable ensemble to unleash this pain. Each actor delivers an excellent performance, none of which would be complete without the other. In the lead, Mara is soothingly calm and compassionate. Ona is a refreshing anchor amid the emotional turbulence of her peers. As Salome, Foy relishes some moments that evoke goosebumps as she articulates the lengths to which she’ll go to protect her children. She finds a good foil in Buckley, who is an equally volatile cocktail of passion and rage. McDormand is especially memorable in her brief appearance. With only a few shots, her hardened resignation perfectly captures the fate that awaits any women who stay.
Amid these Hollywood heavyweights, though, two Canadians steal the show. As Agata, Judith Ivey us an unshakable rock, appropriately maternal yet commanding authority as the elder in the room. As Greta, Sheila McCarthy is the heart of Women Talking. The naturalism of her performance is quietly magnetic. Greta has a simplicity to her cadence, yet McCarthy conveys with understated grace how the women understand the world through the limited perspective life has afforded them. Alternately hilarious and heartbreaking in the same line reading, particularly when Greta frames each of her ideas with her beloved workhorses, Ruth and Cheryl, McCarthy’s tenderness and innocence evokes a paradise lost as the women realize the cruelty of the world in which their trapped and desperately need to escape. The film affords us the privilege to witness as these women learn to be dreamers once again.