Women Talking (United States, 2022)

December 21, 2022
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Women Talking Poster

The title doesn’t lie. Women Talking is all about women talking. In this case, their conversation revolves around the nighttime horrors they have experienced living in a cloistered, patriarchal Mennonite community where the use of tranquilizers paves the way to rape and violence perpetrated by husbands, brothers, fathers, and neighbors. The year is 2010 but it might as well be 1810 when considering the attitudes and objections these women face. And, even when their attackers are arrested, the pressure to “forgive” is strong.

Women Talking is heavy on dialogue but light on any sort of discernible narrative. It’s a “message movie” and, while the message is important, director Sarah Polley hammers it home with a stridency that’s distancing. Too often, the characters don’t seem real. They are mouthpieces for victims of male toxicity in isolated communities. Part of the problem is the theatricality of the production, which seems like it’s the adaptation of a play (it isn’t; it’s an adaptation of a book by Miriam Toews). Another issue is that Polley has elected to desaturate the film’s colors to an extreme degree. Presumably this is to emphasize the drabness of the women’s lives but it calls attention to itself too forcefully.

As for the actual words spoken by the women… They vary from insightful to obvious. At its best, Women Talking is honest and thought-provoking. At its worst, it seems like period piece mumblecore. There are some fierce performances, with Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, and Jessie Buckley standing apart. And there are some weaker ones – Ben Whishaw’s August (the token “good” male) is a round peg in a square hole. In trying to dampen down his character, Whishaw crafts someone so low-key that he fades into his surroundings.

Women Talking focuses on the decision facing a group of rape victims when it is learned that their attackers are going to make bail. Led by Agata (Judith Ivey), Greta (Sheila McCarthy), Ona (Rooney Mara), Salome (Claire Foy), and Mariche (Jessie Buckley), the women must decide how best to approach this event: remain subservient and accept the return of the men, stay and fight, or leave to found a new community. Entwined with the question of a woman’s second-class citizenship is the issue of salvation. Excommunication from the community represents not only a physical separation from those who remain but a spiritual severing from the path to heaven. This is a real concern for some of the women who would rather accept suffering in this life for the promise of something better to come. Much of the movie focuses on discussing the various pros and cons of staying vs. leaving. There’s a repetition to these arguments that may cause some viewers to tune out after a while.

Polley is selective about what she presents regarding the women’s victimization. She elects not to depict any of the actual rapes or attacks. Instead, she shows the aftermaths – blood on the sheets, bloody teeth in a hand, etc. It’s enough to prompt the imagination but not sufficiently graphic to be considered exploitative. (The movie carries a PG-13 rating.) These images, offered as fleeting flashbacks, provide some grounding for the characters but Women Talking doesn’t do much to advance the stories of the women populating this movie.

World-building is scattershot. Since this movie transpires in a community that is aggressively patriarchal and out-of-step with the modern world, it might have been useful to provide a better understanding of day-to-day living. Polley largely skips this, either deeming it to be unimportant or seeing it as a distraction from the story she’s telling. Unfortunately, this lack of detail, coupled with the stagey approach and technical choices, fails to bring the film’s world into sufficient focus.

Is a movie this openly didactic timely? Had Women Talking arrived in theaters a few years ago, when the #MeToo movement was gaining momentum, it would have had a stronger impact. In 2022, it comes in a distant second to She Said for addressing the subject while at the same time telling a more intimate story. Without offering more than dialogue, Women Talking has difficulty sustaining itself for 104 minutes.

Women Talking (United States, 2022)

Run Time: 1:44
U.S. Home Release Date: 2023-03-07
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Sexual Assault, Profanity)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.76:1