Writer/director Sarah Polley has only made four features, starting with her debut in 2006, Away from Her, but it's only in the last week or so that I have caught up with her, first by seeing Take This Waltz, and now catching her new film, Women Talking, based on a novel by Miriam Toews. Her screenplay for Away from Her was nominated for a screenplay Oscar ... she wasn't yet 30 at the time. She has written all of her films (and now she has a book as well, Run Towards the Danger, which I am reading as I type this). Before beginning her directing career, she had been acting on screen since she was six, getting a feature role in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen when she was nine, starring in two Canadian TV series, Ramona and Avonlea, for eight years, and continuing as an actor until 2010. Women Talking is her first film in ten years, and it only solidifies my opinion that she is one of our best writer/directors.
I'm not sure what identifies a "Sarah Polley Movie". Her films are intelligent, the acting is usually excellent, they are filmed (and set in) Canada. Women are at the center of her movies. The films look great (Luc Montpellier has been the cinematographer for three of the films, including Women Talking). Their movies are very different, but the director Polley brings to mind is Ryan Coogler, who also has made four films, beginning with the fine Fruitvale Station, and who has yet to disappoint (although his career has gone towards the blockbuster, having made the two Black Panther movies).
I loved Stories We Tell so much that I thought of Polley as a great director, even if I'd only seen two of her movies. So it's easy to say that I was excited about her first film in ten years. And what a film it is. We saw Women Talking with a friend who was worried about the film ... he had read and loved the book, and wondered how it could be captured on film. Afterwards, he gave a thumbs up. Polley draws together her strong cast (unfair to single out only a few, but Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley and particularly Claire Foy are especially excellent), giving them dialogue that is quotable, if sometimes speechifying, and making each character distinct (Toews gets a lot of credit for this, of course). She turns a story that could be exploitive (the women in an isolated religious community have been systematically raped and beaten for decades) and makes the focus the women themselves ... the assaults are never far from our attention, but Polley doesn't show them endlessly. Women Talking is only partly about abuse and abusers. Polley's primary focus is on the group of women as they decide how they will continue to live their lives.
Most of the film is set in a single hayloft in a barn, and at times there is a stagy feel, as if Women Talking were based on a play. It's not intrusive, though. What does draw attention is the washed-out colors of the film, about which Polley has said,
I think once they start having this conversation in the hayloft they're already consigning the world they live into the past. It’s already done because they're having a conversation about it and how to change it. So for me, it was important that it feels like a faded postcard. That there be a sense of nostalgia and of a colorlessness. A sense that whatever it is, this world that they're talking about doesn't exist anymore because the very fact of them having the conversation is shifting that reality.
The emotionalism of the final shot of the film is reminiscent of Spielberg, showing us one more time that Sarah Polley's career as a writer/director already exists in the rare company of our finest artists.