Director: Sarah Polley
Stars: Jessie Buckley, Rooney Mara, Claire Foy
Can you constructively criticise a film without disagreeing with its politics? I hope so, because there’s plenty about Women Talking worth championing, even as – for this viewer – the experience itself left a lot to be desired.
Baring the inauspicious stamp of Brad Pitt’s Plan B production company (a second swift act of attrition after She Said?), Sarah Polley makes a welcome return to the directing fold of contemporary cinema, if not a wholly surefooted one. Here adapting a novel by Miriam Towes, she presents a forthright feminist essay backed by an intimidatingly rich pool of acting talent. As the title preempts, there’s much speechifying to be done, but the method of its documentation is all fingers and thumbs. Distractingly so.
It’s 2010 though one could be forgiven for thinking the year were 17-something. The female figureheads of a god-fearing commune have gathered in a hayloft to debate whether they should stand and fight the men of the colony who have assaulted them, or whether they should instead pack up and run. They have a day and a night to make their choice. Not a one of them is literate, so the commune’s sensitive schoolteacher August (Ben Whishaw) has been drafted in to take minutes. We are privy to their decision making process.
Early on in the organising of the film, Polley tilts toward disarray. Quite aside from the dismal digital colour correction job – which renders the whole dully washed-out in flat aquamarine – a series of shots garishly contrast the dark of the barn with an inelegantly framed rectangle of blinding exterior sky. This in a sequence that grapples to sustain a sense of geography or continuity within the barn. The juxtapositions are, frankly, horrible to look at. In a cinema, actually uncomfortable. Editing Women Talking must have been a tall order. The blocking and staging is a fitful mess that jumbles up the voices doing battle for supremacy. Perhaps this itself is the point. To convey the sense of happenstance and panic in the group. It does little to make the viewing experience palatable.
One might well argue that this isn’t the time or place for being placated. Ona (Rooney Mara) is pregnant thanks to a drug-induced rape. Salome (Claire Foy) is a tempest of rage at the sexual abuses inflicted upon her children. Mariche (Jessie Buckley) fears a violent temper at ‘home’. Women Talking saves us the toil of witnessing the crimes perpetrated against its characters, but it has no qualms portraying the emotive repercussions. Still, for all the aspirations toward prestige status here (not least in some handwringing performances), Polley’s film has a habit of coming across as cluttered and confused. This is true from the very beginning, where a child’s pacy narration fights against Hildur Guðnadóttir’s lively score and some energetic scene-setting for our attention. Polley’s eagerness to get things moving is admirable, but the execution diminishes the results.
Supposedly in deadlock, the drama in the barn resembles 12 Angry Men, with only Salome staunchly in favour of staying to fight. The argument for this is given precious little time. Instead, Women Talking unpacks the difference between leaving and fleeing. It is right to itemise the disparity between these words. Indeed, some of the strongest material here is found in the demarcation between the two. In making the case for leaving as an act of strength, and not cowardice. In handing these women back their agency.
The subtler performances are the better ones. Mara is a nominal lead and the most successfully rendered of those given the most screen time. Her Ona is open to debate and persuasion. She is alive at the prospect of her autonomy, and the thwarted love she shares with August adds an unforced element of warmth to Polley’s chilly palette (much more successfully than some of the other moments of levity injected into the film). Judith Ivey brings stout earthiness to elder Agata, and Michelle McLeod shines quietly as the more peripheral Mejal. Elsewhere more volatility is found. For the most past Whishaw appears on peak form, but certain takes find him veering into what seems like an SNL parody of his own performance. He teeters on the brink of awards-y mawkishness.
There’s another powerhouse of modern cinema in the ranks both in front of and behind the camera. Frances McDormand takes a prominent producer’s credit and she flanks the picture as the dourly monikered Scarface Janz; the crimes of the community’s men written across her face. Yet she is not in the barn with the others. With almost no dialogue we understand her resolute indoctrination. She throws the others into relief.
At it’s fervent best Women Talking is a shout for self-empowerment. A cry among many. While great strides still lie ahead, more women are making cinema now than there have been for decades. This is especially true in independent and ‘world cinema’ circles. Hollywood is stumbling on the backfoot to catch up. The range of material out there is diverse and powerful. Those that choose to forefront feminist battlegrounds have and will continue doing so with dexterity, anger, subtlety and power. There are flashes of some of those qualities here, but subtlety is not among them.
Polley’s intentions are great, no doubt about it, but Women Talking does not feel like a great film.