I watched this film at the Hebden Bridge Picture House. Sat in the third row of the stalls I didn’t get much sense of what the audience were making of the film but I did note that the 11.30 am screening attracted an audience in which women were in a significant majority, perhaps three to one – I didn’t attempt to count, that’s just an impression. I mention this because Women Talking seems to have become a film around which a lot of the writing focuses on its address to the current questions about #Me Too and the under-representation of women in the industry. That’s fine but perhaps close textual analysis of what is actually on the screen is being neglected?

The small group comprising two families gathers for discussion in the hayloft

Sarah Polley is a major figure in Canadian film and television. She began as a child actor and has over 50 acting credits. She moved into writing and directing in 1999 when she was only 20 and directed her first feature Away From Her, an adaptation of an Alice Munro story, in 2006. But since then she had only directed two other features, Take This Waltz (2011) and Stories We Tell (2012), both excellent, before Women Talking. She executive-produced and scripted the adaption of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace as a six episode serial for CBC and Netflix in 2017. In 2022 she published a collection of essays, entitled Run Towards the Danger which included her account of a sexual assault she experienced as a 16 year-old. Another essay explained that she suffered post-concussion syndrome after an accident and this prevented her from writing and directing for four years. Sarah Polley is also known as an activist in Canada and all her films have involved Canadian content and stories about women.

Women Talking sees Sarah Polley dealing with another adaptation of a novel by a Canadian writer, in this case by Miriam Toews, the second daughter of Mennonite parents in Manitoba. The novel is inspired by real events between 2005 and 2009 in a Mennonite colony established in Bolivia by Conservative Mennonites from North America (and known as Manitoba Colony). The book was published in 2018 in Canada, being well received and nominated for Literary Awards. It was quickly optioned by Frances McDormand for a film adaptation by her company Hear/Say Productions. McDormand and Polley approached each other around the same time to work together on the adaptation. The film was eventually made by Hear/Say with Plan B for Orion Pictures (now owned by Amazon), so it is an American film: but it was made in Canada with a Canadian crew and an international cast including Jessie Buckley (Ireland) and Claire Foy (UK) joining Rooney Mara as the three leads. The ‘Manitoba Colony’ recreated for the film is set in an unspecified country. It isn’t named as being in Bolivia. The film was actually shot in Toronto. So, in one sense it is ‘universal’ and like a fable. (The discussion by the animals in Animal Farm comes to mind.)

August (Ben Wishaw), Ona (Rooney Mara) and Salome (Claire Foy)

Many of the men in the colony who committed rape and other forms of assault on girls and women, after using bovine tranquiliser to sedate them, have been arrested and held on remand. Most of the other men have gone to the city to bail them. The women have two days in which to decide what to do. They have three choices: to stay and do nothing, forgiving the men yet again, to stay and fight for rights in the community or to leave and start a new colony. August (Ben Wishaw), a man from an excommunicated family who has been ‘out in the world’ and is a teacher, is invited to be the minute-taker for the women (none of whom have been taught to read or write). Melvyn, played by the transgender Canadian actor August Winter, looks after many of the children while the meeting takes place. Eventually, when all the women have voted on the choice of action, a smaller group of women meet in a hayloft to make the final decision between staying and fighting or leaving.

There is little plot as such in terms of ‘action’, though there are a couple of forced interruptions to the discussions as well as organised breaks. There is a resolution of sorts to the narrative, but it is undercut to the extent that we really don’t know what will happen next. If the women stay, how will the men react and if they leave, where will they go and how will they manage to build a new colony? In this sense, the film narrative is essentially about this discussion at this point. I have looked at a few reviews and the one closest to my initial response is probably that by Mark Kermode in the Observer/Guardian. He evokes The Crucible as another staging of women articulating their thoughts in public trial/discussion. That film had occurred to me too because of the patriarchal community with a strong religious ethos. He also mentions A Question of Silence (Netherlands 1982) by Marlene Goriss, which I hadn’t thought of but which I now see is a good call. I agree with him too in mentioning Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom (UK-Spain 1995). Loach’s film was well received generally but the particular long scene in which villagers and Republican soldiers discuss land reform certainly split audiences. Mainstream cinema has never properly supported cinema in which real discussion takes place. Why does this anger some audiences so much? The main complaint is that film shouldn’t ‘preach’ or ‘deliver messages’. Why not if the characters in the narrative are trying to learn?

Salome (Claire Foy) with her mother Agata (Judith Ivey)

What’s important in Women Talking is that the women have not, in this ultra-conservative religious community, been allowed/encouraged to articulate ideas in public before and now they are trying to do it at a moment of crisis. The problem is, however, that it is feminist critics who are offering some of the most rigorous critiques of Sarah Polley’s approach. Take, for instance, Sight and Sound‘s Gabrielle Marceau:

. . . this formulaic feminist drama is shackled by its own didactic tactics. Though her personal investment in the material is beyond doubt, Sarah Polley falters here with a sanctimonious script and insipid cinematography, glazed over with an unreal patina of fantasy.

The contradiction: the film persuasively articulates the systematic oppression that silences victims and punishes those who speak out, but seems poised to become an untouchable object itself, a film whose own sincerity and importance deflects criticism. Watching it is also an exercise in contradiction; while I am parsing the film’s many flaws, I am also, for almost the entire runtime, in chills.

I’ve read through this critical review several times, trying to understand exactly what is being suggested. I think there is something important here but whatever it is, it doesn’t make me want to attack the film. Rather, I’m trying to understand my own response. I was surprised that I didn’t feel more angry or emotionally disturbed as I watched the narrative play out. On the other hand, the film has stayed with me and I’m still thinking about it so it hqd an intellectual impact on me. I think I need to see it again at some point to clarify some of my thoughts. In the meantime I have also listened to most of the podcast published by the Canadian feminist group Seventh Row:

E132: Sarah Polley’s Women Talking

Previously big supporters of Sarah Polley’s work, in this case Alex Heeney and Orla Smith with a guest expert on ‘Can Lit’, deliver a general put-down of the film, finding fault with virtually every aspect of its project. I think at this stage all I can do is refute some of the statements they make, some of which chime with the points Gabrielle Marceau makes. Across the two critiques it is asserted that the script is bad, the direction doesn’t work, the cinematography is ‘insipid’, the casting is wrong etc. So why, you might wonder has the film been nominated for various awards and why are so many critics being ‘taken in’ by it?

Having spent over a fortnight trying to complete this post, I note that Sarah Polley won the Oscar for ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’. I don’t personally take much notice of the Oscars, but I realise that they do play a role in the industry and confer a certain level of recognition. I haven’t looked for scripts for several years but I noted that Polley’s script is actually accessible through IMDb so I downloaded it. I’m not sure how representative it is of the final shooting script (some scenes in the script don’t seem to be in the film), but what is clear is that Polley spent a long time revising it – there are indications of twelve separate revisions listed on the front sheet and covering the period from April to August 2021. Reading the script, I find it difficult to remember scenes clearly. That’s one of the reasons I hope to see the film again. I haven’t read the book so I can’t comment on the every aspect of the adaptation, but I don’t remember any feeling at any point that this was a ‘bad’ script. I certainly didn’t think it was ‘sanctimonious’.

the tableau in depth with Mariche (Jessie Buckley) turning to face towards the camera

The film’s cinematography is by Luc Montpellier, an experienced Canadian filmmaker who worked on Sarah Polley’s two previous fiction films. The film was shot with Panavision lenses to produce a digital master that is designed to be projected at 2.76:1, one of the widest ratios available. I remember noticing that the masking changed in the cinema but I wasn’t really conscious of the ultra-wide screen. More noticeable was the desaturated colour. Sarah Polley has commented that this was meant to evoke “a faded postcard of a world that’s already past”. The wide frame does allow ‘tableau’ compositions of the women in the hayloft and the possibility of one woman speaking to the others as an audience. Against this I also noted that Jessie Buckley in particular is often shot at an angle which causes her to turn to face the camera. I wasn’t sure what to make of this, although Buckley’s character (Mariche) does become isolated in the discussion. I’m not sure why any of the observations might explain why an audience would find the photography ‘insipid’. The other feature of the film’s ‘look’ is the costume design which appears to be totally authentic based on designs used by the Mennonite women in Manitoba (i.e. in Canada). They also look similar to those in the Bolivia photographs (see below).

Seventh Row also criticises the casting and the accents used in the film. They are disturbed by the Canadian accents of most of the supporting cast and critical of the accents attempted by Foy and Buckley. They seem to be wanting an homogenous American accent. I’m not sure why. I enjoyed all the performances, so I didn’t notice any ‘bad acting’. The music score is by the Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir who is very much the ‘go to’ composer of the moment and also scored Tár in 2022. Her score for Women Talking worked for me.

Two of the girls plait their hair together to mark their solidarity in a screen grab showing the ultra-wide screen ratio

The crucial point here seems to me to be concerned with the ways in which the film released in December 22 in North America engages with current discourse about domestic abuse, abuse of women in the film industry and greater opportunities for women to be creative in the film industry. We are offered a literary adaptation of a book written by a woman, that is written, directed, scored, co-edited and art-directed by women. The story is based on real events and to some extent ‘universalised’ in this presentation. Polley has talked about the actual production and how she organised the shoot to be a positive experience for all the women involved, including herself. Seventh Row feel the film doesn’t work. I will try to go back to their podcast once I’ve seen the film again. The Gabrielle Marceau review is more problematic as there are observations that don’t make sense such as this: ” . . . an approach to storytelling that is literal to the point of obnoxious. (A prime example: over a character’s rhapsodic plea that the community’s young teenage boys be allowed to go with the women should they leave, we see dreamy shots of boys playing in the fields and chatting warmly.)” In fact this sequence also includes August’s comments, as the teacher of the boys, about the difficult and confusing emotions they feel and that how they could be a threat to the women but also could feel empathy and tenderness. That they are still children and that they can be taught. I’m not sure how this speech can be described as ‘obnoxious’. The women themselves have in most cases not received an education themselves. Ona, who has learned most  among her peers, asks August the question about the young teenage boys to elicit this response.

Marceau’s complaint that the film is: “. . . an untouchable object itself, a film whose own sincerity and importance deflects criticism” is perhaps more worth pursuing. It has received criticism, but the more important point is presumably not so much that the majority of critics raved about it, but that audiences have generally avoided it in cinemas. Despite the critical acclaim and a ‘wide-ish’ release that most  ‘awards films’ benefit from, in North America it has earned only just over $5 million from a release that reached 707 screens at its widest. So far the UK is the best-performing ‘international’ market with earnings at just over $1 million from a widest release of 201 screens. The total worldwide box office for the film was $7.55 million by March 3rd. There are still major markets such as France, Japan and South Korea to open but this must be a disappointment for Universal so far for a film with three significant female stars, at least in the Anglophone world. The film played over a week at Hebden Bridge and it was busy on a Thursday morning, but Hebden Bridge is not a typical venue. I suspect most audiences found it a daunting prospect and stayed away.

There is a BBC report from 2019 on the Manitoba Colony in Bolivia here. From the photographs it appears that girls are being taught in the colony’s school but the report suggests only for a few years. In any case, they are not taught Spanish, meaning that they can’t make easy contact with outsiders. The women in the colony speak an archaic form of plattdeutsch. Polley’s script clearly has changed these points but overall the photos  suggest that the basis of the story is unchanged. On this score I thought that the inclusion of sketches of scenes made by one of the younger women worked s a means of recording what was said/acted out. August also takes minutes. These are women not used to discussion/debate and speaking about ideas. I think the film conveys that very well.

My interim conclusion is that the film aims to achieve a great deal. It might not quite manage to fulfil all its aims but the fact that it tries and makes a brave stab is something to applaud. My faith in Sarah Polley and her approach has not been damaged.