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Telluride Film Review: ‘Women Talking’ is a Riveting Masterclass in Acting

United Artists Releasing

The first movie I took in here at the Telluride Film Festival is almost assuredly going to wind up being one of the best. Women Talking is an emotional powerhouse and a masterclass in acting. Quiet in its devastation but retaining a measure of hope, this is truly riveting cinema. Filmmaker Sarah Polley and her terrific cast tackle this tough material with great aplomb. Polley has the perfect touch to make sure that everything here works. Going through the range of emotions, Women Talking is a full meal. Look for this to not just be a hit at Telluride, but likely appeal greatly to the Academy as well. Polley has made her Twelve Angry Men, which is high yet deserved praise.

Women Talking rarely has a false note, even as it manages to work in some lightly comedic lines to its otherwise deathly serious story. The confidence that Polley has in this work doesn’t just resonate with the audience, it also mixes with the aces cast. Everyone is in service of each other, resulting in something pretty special.

Taking place in a small and isolated religious community, we quickly see that essentially all of the women have been routinely sexually assaulted by the men. The elders dismiss their concerns as lies or the work of the devil. For some, it has gotten to a breaking point. Now that two younger girls witnessed one of their rapists in action (the men’s M.O. is to drug them and assault them in their sleep), the claims can no longer be denied. A few men have even been arrested, with others going into the city to post bail. This leaves the women with a rare bit of alone time, and several are going to use this opportunity to figure out just what to do. A vote is taken, with three options narrowed to two. They can leave the colony, or they can stay and fight.

So, the women talk, joined by the kindly August (Ben Whishaw) to take the minutes. After Scarface Janz (Frances McDormand) is disgusted with both options, having voted to forgive the men, leaves the discussion, letting the two factions begin debating, moderated by elders Agata (Judith Ivey) and Greta (Sheila McCarthy). Some, like Ona (Rooney Mara) are open-minded and look at this debate as an exercise, even with a baby in her belly, courtesy of rape. Ona’s older sister Salome (Claire Foy) is ready to fight, tearfully proclaiming that she will take a life in order to protect her children. On the other hand, Mariche (Jessie Buckley) takes issue with both Ona and Salome, angry in her own way. Young girls Autje (Kate Hallett) and Neitje (Liv McNeil) are there as well, having been raped by their own family members as well. As the clock ticks, more and more layers to these women are revealed, making the tragedy even more haunting.

The entire ensemble is pitch perfect here. Claire Foy, Rooney Mara, and Ben Whishaw are the highlights, but that takes nothing away from anyone else, including a great Jessie Buckley. Foy’s rage and fury hit home, especially in a monologue that highlights just how far she’s willing to go. Mara’s ethereal nature is luminous here, allowing for potentially even some hope in this dark story. Her moments with Whishaw, playing the one kind man in the colony and one with pining love for Ona, is terrific. He’s also excellent on his own, giving another layer to the proceedings. The rest of the aforementioned cast are aces as well, even McDormand in what’s little more than a cameo. Other players here include and Michelle McLeod, Emily Mitchell, and August Winter, and they’re top notch as well. Choosing your favorite here is like killing your darlings, which is always the hallmark of a quality ensemble.

United Artists Releasing

Sarah Polley has an impeccable touch here. What could have been a chamber piece (the novel suggests a play as much as a film) instead is electrically compelling. Polley’s writing and direction, alongside Hildur Guðnadóttir‘s score and Luc Montpellier‘s cinematography, it all results in an impeccably made picture. There’s even some bold choices that perhaps improbably pay off, including sporadic narration from Hallett’s character. At first, it feels tacked on, but it ultimately results in an incredible final line, one that won’t be soon forgotten about.

Women Talking is sensational. Sure to be one of the highlights of Telluride, it’s also likely to be a major Oscar player as well. What could have been stagey and talky is never as simple as that. It’s a powerhouse from its cast and filmmaker. Brace yourself for an emotional experience that is incredibly well done and immensely rewarding.

SCORE: ★★★1/2

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Written by Joey Magidson

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