In my review of After Sun, I said it was the best film of the festival until I saw an even better one the next day. It’s that movie, and there’s no shadow on After Sun say it because I’m not sure I’ve seen or will see a better movie all year. I haven’t been so impressed with a movie since I first saw Mass at this same festival this time last year.
A little like Mass, women speaking is a chamber piece, that of a group of people who have come together to express their views and feelings in the aftermath of an indescribable tragedy and in the light of their faith, and hopefully achieve a form of liberation. In women who talk, that tragedy is this: the men of a reclusive religious community drugged and raped the women and young girls of their commune for years, perhaps decades. The men responsible were arrested and taken to the city authorities. However, the elders of their community decreed that the men should be allowed to return and that the women should all forgive their abusers. Since the men are out of town, the women have two days to decide among themselves whether to accept or refuse these conditions. Most, but not all, finding acceptance impermissible, women from three trusted families gathered in a hayloft to decide what form their rejection of those terms should take.
As you would no doubt assume from such a summary, women who talk is sometimes extremely dark and overwhelming. Of that there can be no question, and there should not be. Films need to be made about such subjects, and the films that are made cannot shirk the reality they face. women who talk give them their due. That being said, it’s not a gloomy or daunting experience. It is a moral purification. A truer form of baptism than you will find in any font in any church. It’s not the sins of violence that you can feel washing away by looking at him, it’s the pain, the tension and the grief of these women. The pain they all share and which they all internalize and express differently, through devotion, hostility, humor, anger, calm, restraint, resentment, playfulness, love.
The cast is wide, but no character has a distinct and unique role, a defined perspective that is informed by their experiences, age, gender, and temperament. The spotlight is shared equally, but some roles are more crucial and singular than others. Ona (Rooney Mara) is calm, thoughtful and compassionate. Salomé (Claire Foy) is defensive, maternal and vengeful. Mariche (Jessie Buckley) is bullied, cynical and angry. Among them is also August (Ben Whishaw), a schoolteacher who writes the minutes of their meeting and whose experience of the world outside their commune has given him a fortunately modern perspective. Yes, his presence is there to fill the knee-jerk “not every man” response, but that’s something this movie thought about and therein lies its brilliance.
women who talk thought of everything. He anticipated every counter-argument and every angle and does so with such inclusive and devastating grace. It’s not a strictly naturalistic film and so it doesn’t matter that it forces credulity that every character is so amazingly articulate, even in their ignorance, in some cases. The dialogue is so rich, with both character and perspective. As the title suggests, it’s an extremely wordy film. Words flow like water between his characters as they struggle to dominate argument and discussion. As Mass Where Judgment at Nuremberg, it’s one mind-blowing monologue after another. Our society will continue to debate the appropriate response to sexual violence and how the phenomenon can be extinguished, long after one of us is dead, and women who talk understand that. He considers every possibility and understands the magnitude of the ideas he struggles with, but he does so with such power, maturity and intelligence that he rises to the challenge and more.
Some might cringe at such a wordy script, but I would outright refute any accusation that the film is scenic or uncinematic. Nothing could be further from the truth. The structure and setting are playful, but director Sarah Polley outdoes herself in the way she composes her film, the sheer beauty of the steel gray color palette and changing lighting throughout the day and night, the flow and perfect reflux of each perfectly timed cut, and above all the lively and dangerous intensity of the performances.
Sweep away any expectations you had of this upcoming awards season, the Best Supporting Actress category is now that movie five times. It’s the most uniformly gorgeous cast assembled this year, though some women manage to stand out. Maybe Jessie Buckley was a bit of a misfit, the same fire and spirit she can’t help but bring to a role that served her so well in Men is actually a bit of a disadvantage here, but oh my gosh, give Claire Foy all the prizes you can, now! And to Luc Montpellier the director of photography, and Hildur Gudnadottir the composer, to the genius who thought of putting “Daydream Believer” on the soundtrack, and especially to Sarah Polley, who wrote and directed the fucking thing!
Perhaps the film declines a bit in its final third, but by then its place in cinematic history is already assured. It is a classic in the making which brings to these questions a look that is as cathartic as it is intellectual. Between The assistant, never rarely sometimes always, promising young woman and Mensome of the best movies in recent memory have tackled similar topics, and women who talk earns its place among them all. It’s a film that deserves all the praise the community can bestow, and I fervently hope to see it take flight as one of the most talked about and acclaimed films of the season.