Sarah Polley, the Canadian director of this intense, forensic waiting game, has maintained an admirably self-deprecating Twitter persona during her film’s uncertain progress towards a best-picture nomination at the Oscars. Sharing a recommendation from JJ Abrams, she posted: “Just making sure you saw this endorsement – cause if you liked Star Wars you will LOVE Women Talking.”
This may be making too much of her capacity for sardonic self-own, but it is hard to escape the suspicion that one tart line has been pointed up for just that purpose. In the midst of a debate about how the eponymous women, residents of a Mennonite community, respond to an endless cycle of sexual abuse, one of the attending children blurts out: “This is very, very boring!”
Women Talking is not that. It does not move at the same, sickening speed as a Star Wars film, but the consistently excellent cast makes busy drama from a shoal of related debates. Based on a novel by Miriam Toews, the film is introduced as “a work of female imagination”. There is a dull literal truth there, but the epigram also makes us aware we should not expect documentary realism.
After being drugged, raped and beaten by the men in the community, the characters – largely illiterate, ignorant of wider culture – gather in a barn to debate whether they should get in their carts and leave. Some of the perpetrators have been arrested and, bail posted, will soon be returning to the farm. The women must decide before then.
Polley presents the conversation as a disconcertingly formal process. Issues are raised and the women thrash them out. A lone, apparently decent man (Ben Whishaw as The Wizard of Oz’s Scarecrow after getting his brain back) records the information and helps them to an unreal class of improvised democracy. As if to further press how embedded the action is in deep imagination, Luc Montpellier shoots in bleached, desaturated tones that border upon monochrome. Hildur Guonadóttir’s brilliant score clangs and clatters from the mechanical to the obliquely inspiring.
All of which sounds drier than the straw upon which they sit. Cunningly drawn characters fleshed out by excellent actors keep the exchanges sharp and engaging. Jessie Buckley plays Mariche, a woman whose anger and impatience may be cover for terror. Claire Foy and Rooney Mara, as Salome and Ona, seem, at first, to believe that some form of meaningful change is possible within the community. It is Ona, pregnant from rape, who suggests drawing up a list of pros and cons for leaving.
It shouldn’t need to be said that the women are implicitly debating the wider challenges of global patriarchy. Yet many of their concerns are particular to their circumstance. Few contemporary conversations on sexual violence would spend so much time pondering the subject of absolution. “Is forgiveness that’s forced upon us true forgiveness?” Ona asks pointedly. When one character talks of the uninformed survivors creating their “own map”, a sense emerges that the debate is honing a universal strategy for female survival.
Polley allows bursts of weirdness and humour to punctuate deliberation that, though often abstract, never becomes alienatingly cerebral. One diegetic music cue shakes us out of the timeless limbo in unexpectedly toe-tapping fashion. A shot of male teenagers spilling down a dusty road is, though superficially banal, almost as troubling as flashbacks of an older character spitting out her teeth.
Then again, as someone says in the midst of the tumult, “not all men”. The irony is so deliciously thick that it threatens to glue up the action for a minute or two. Yes, there are jokes in this knobbly, awkward, singular film.