Women Talking: women are the prisoners and men the jailers in this tense prison-break film
There isn’t a barred window or barbed-wire-topped wall to be found in Women Talking, but it’s a prison-break film nonetheless. The latest feature from the Canadian actress and filmmaker Sarah Polley unfolds in a staunch religious community whose female members – drugged and raped in their sleep for years by men who must number among their husbands, fathers and sons – have every reason to want to escape.
Yet leaving their set-apart life and starting afresh isn’t as easy as lobbing a packed suitcase into the next horse-drawn buggy leaving camp. Rather, the mere possibility must first be spoken into existence – collectively but also in secret, or at least out of range of male ears and eyes. Pros and cons must be weighed; alternatives ruled out; eventualities conjured and mulled.
“What follows,” an introductory on-screen caption declares, “is an act of female imagination”. But do those words refer to the film itself, or the quasi-spell-casting process it depicts? With apologies for the spoiler, it’s both.
Women Talking gathers together a multi-generational ensemble of gifted actresses in a barn, then has them verbally extract themselves from the patriarchy while you watch. The talkers include Ona (Rooney Mara), pensive, gentle and pregnant by one of her rapists, and Mariche (Jessie Buckley), who is beaten by her husband, and whose despair has curdled into defeated acceptance of the women’s broader lot.
The bolder Salome (Claire Foy) is fired by righteous fury, while Frances McDormand’s village elder rages in the opposite direction: to leave would be grounds for damnation. As for Ben Whishaw’s August, a trusted schoolteacher carrying a torch for Ona, he’s there to take minutes of the meeting, and the story’s living #NotAllMen disclaimer.
Despite a morose colour palette that can feel a little eat-your-vegetables at times, the film is beautifully performed and gripping in a chewy, nuanced, contemplative way – as its title suggests, the talking, as well as the thinking it kindles, is the point. And of course Polley’s script, adapted from a 2018 novel by Miriam Toews, is holding a far broader swathe of society than isolated sects to account.
Initially, the film plays coy about exactly when it’s taking place – it could be a century ago – until a pickup truck pulls up, Daydream Believer blaring on the stereo, and asks the women to come out and register for the 2010 census. In an otherwise play-like film, it’s a thrillingly cinematic sequence; the Monkees track hitting like a stray sunbeam from the outside world. You mean this is happening now? we think. Well, that’s the point, the film replies. When it comes to sexual violence, the old ways die hard.
15 cert, 104 min. In cinemas from Friday February 10