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#TIFF22 Review: Women Talking (Special Presentations)

September 17, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2022 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8th to 18th.

Sarah Polley, whose previous trio of films Away from HerTake This Waltz and Stories We Tell are all in the established canon of celebrated Canadian cinema, makes her long awaited return to directing with Women Talking.

An adaptation of the Miriam Toews novel of the same name, the film is set in a Mennonite community, and unfolds as a solid conversation piece that follows the women in the religious colony as they come together to find a solution to the violent sexual assaults they have been experiencing at the hands of the men. Do they do nothing, leave the community, or stay and fight? It’s a constant back-and-forth that is taking place in an old barn, with limited time while the men are away, and no easy answers.

There is a pretty even split between what side the women are on, with some worried about angering God and threatening their salvation by leaving the colony, and others seeing no option but to flee or fight for their lives. Their conversation is being transcribed by August Epps (Ben Whishaw), a male teacher who has been brought in as a trusted listener. Since the women haven’t been taught to read or write, his job is to record the minutes of the meeting for historical record.

With much of the film confined to a single location, Women Talking does feel a bit stagey at times, though Polley finds a few ways to open up the material, including some lyrical, thematically relevant cutaway images of children playing. The film features decent cinematography by Luc Montpellier (who also shot Away from Her and Take This Waltz), though I have mixed feelings about the washed out colour grade that has been put on top of it, which makes the movie appear somewhat greyish and overly flat. But Polley’s film is still carried by very strong performances from its entire ensemble cast, including Whishaw’s sensitive work.

This is very much an ensemble piece, but the three standouts are Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy and Rooney Mara. Buckley’s Mariche and Foy’s Salome are the most combative and righteously angry members of the group, while Mara’s Ona is pregnant and worries about her unborn child, forming a close bond with Whishaw’s August. The film also balances the viewpoints of the elders like Agata (Judith Ivey), Greta (veteran Canadian actress Sheila McCarthy in a plum role), and Scarface Janz (Frances McDormand, who also produced the film and appears in what amounts to a cameo).

Polley’s screenplay, which she closely adapted from Toews’ book, also finds nuance in its discussions about what to do with the young boys and adolescent males in the community, and if they should be allowed to leave with them. The film acknowledges that they are just as much victims of misogynistic societal mindsets and patterns of behaviour, and there is still hope for them to turn out better with the right influences and education.

I do want to sit with this one for a little while longer and watch it again, but the excellent writing and performances of Women Talking definitely leave an impact, as does the powerful musical score by Icelandic composer Hildur Gu∂nadóttir.

Public Screenings:

Tuesday, September 13th – 6:30 PM at VISA Screening Room at the Princess of Wales

Wednesday, September 14th – 2:30 PM at VISA Screening Room at the Princess of Wales

Friday, September 16th – 8:30 PM at Royal Alexandra Theatre

Saturday, September 17th – 6:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

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