Last week, 'Women Talking' director Sarah Polley took to Twitter to thank the cast and crew of the film for their two Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. She was not expecting it, elaborating with her second tweet in the thread, attaching a photo of her out at a routine doctor's appointment. While both categories are deserved, some dismay remains in me at Polley, being left out of the Best Director category, where every single director nominated is a man.
Expectations were low for today. Here I am at a routine doctor’s appointment. I really didn’t plan this day right. pic.twitter.com/QLMNscY6WA— @realSarahPolley (she/her) (@realsarahpolley) January 24, 2023
It's also because 'Women Talking' is just indubitably good. It's not the perfect film, yes, but it is also incredibly crafted with sincerity and features great talent delivering career-best performances. Set almost entirely in a barn where 10 women debate their future, Polley (who both wrote and directed) has done remarkable work crafting a story so personal and arresting. Fueled by great performances from a strong cast including Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Frances McDormand and more (all of who were also left out of any Academy Award nominations...), it's surprising and curiously disappointing how 'Women Talking' wasn't a secured Oscar lock from the beginning.
The film opens with an explanation that the following 95 minutes are an act of "wild female imagination" and the opening shot of a young girl waking in shock, lying in a bed with bloodied legs. Based on a mixture of real events from a Bolivian Mennonite colony in the early 2000s and the 2018 novel 'Women Talking' by Miriam Toews, the film follows the women in a colony and their discussions on what they should do – stay and do nothing, stay and fight, or leave.
The women of the colony have been raped by the men, who drug them with cow tranquilliser and then gaslight them into believing the attacks were of a supernatural nature – or completely made up. When the women are left alone in the colony when the men go to the city to bail out one of their own, they hold a vote on the action – with stay and fight and leave tied. What follows are 10 women who have been elected to decide the future of the entire colony's women and their discussions in a barn scribed by August (Ben Whishaw), the grown son of an excommunicated family who has returned after university. August had been elected to take the minutes of the women's meetings, as none of them were taught to read or write.
'Women Talking' does not build to an explosion of violence, nor does it show much, if not at all, on the attackers themselves. Rather, Polley chooses to centre the film on the women's quiet, conflicted, impassioned discussions in the barn. The women each express their own viewpoints – from the desperate fear of God spurring them to forgive the men, to completely ravaging anger and sadness that pushes them to want to stay and fight and kill. They deliberate the nature of young men, if they could be taught to be good or if at a certain age, they are too far gone. They scream at each other for their views on each other's complicity and sob together at their heartbrokenness. Polley (and, by extension, original author Toews) and the brilliant ensemble cast have done a great job of exploring different viewpoints shared by women each shattered in different ways by their collective experiences. The film shares compassion for each woman and their individual battles, presenting their divergent convictions with careful empathy.
It's surprising and curiously disappointing how 'Women Talking' wasn't a secured Oscar lock from the beginning.
'Women Talking' does arguably stumble in some weaker sections - many characters monologue at moments as if they were on a stage during a play, the story requires heavy leaning on the voiceover exposition in driving the narrative, Frances McDormand gets approximately 5 seconds of screentime and then disappears into thin air, and finally... that colour grading. There has been some division on the extremely intensely desaturated colour grading. Personally when I was watching the film... I thought it was fine. It didn't affect my viewing experience that egregiously! Would I want the colour grading of 'Women Talking', a random Marvel film, and a couple of fan-made video edits on my Instagram explore page to gladiator fight? Maybe! (Yes.) But the colour grading does work just enough for the film and isn't jarring to the eyes.
With the Oscar race getting more intense as the ceremony approaches this March, 'Women Talking' is a quiet, powerful stand amongst the boisterous noise of the bigger hitters. Poignant and here to stay, 'Women Talking' demands a place at the table and is something not to be missed this year in cinemas. I have a list of awards I think the Academy Awards should introduce (stunt work, casting director...) but today I wish it included Best Acting Ensemble the most. Give the 'Women Talking' cast and creatives their flowers.