In ‘Women Talking,’ the Ensemble Cast Is the Key to the Conversation

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Photo Source: “Women Talking” Credit: Michael Gibson

As we prepare for the 29th Screen Actors Guild Awards, Backstage is breaking down this year’s film and television ensemble nominees for your consideration.

Main Cast: Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Kate Hallett, Judith Ivey, Rooney Mara, Sheila McCarthy, Frances McDormand, Michelle McLeod, Ben Whishaw
Casting by: John Buchan and Jason Knight 
irected by: Sarah Polley 
ritten by: Sarah Polley (based on Miriam Toews’ novel) 
Distributed by: United Artists Releasing

In Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking,” no single character takes precedence over any other. The film follows a group of women who gather in a barn to reclaim their voices in the wake of a series of rapes that have plagued their isolated community. Given the story’s communal nature, there’s perhaps no cast this year that deserves an ensemble prize more. It’s not just that all the actors are fantastic—it’s that awarding all of them rather than just one or two is in keeping with Polley’s radical feminist vision. 

The film is based on Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel of the same name. The author was inspired by a terrifying real-life story in which the female members of a Mennonite colony in Bolivia were routinely drugged and sexually assaulted in their sleep; the book imagines the conversation that might have taken place in the aftermath of the events. Polley centers her adaptation within the confines of a dimly lit barn where the women gather to weigh their options: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave altogether. 

The actors that Polley and CDs John Buchan and Jason Knight have assembled all play a vital role. They express the range of opinions and emotions among the women who live in this remote outpost, which eschews modern technology and where reaching Heaven is the ultimate goal. Claire Foy’s Salome is furious, her pain propelling her toward violence. Jessie Buckley’s sardonic Mariche, on the other hand, favors a more cautious approach; she’s resentful of those who want her to abandon the only world she knows. Rooney Mara’s open-hearted Ona, on the other hand, longs for a better future. 

And while these performers are the boldface names among the group, Polley also trains her spotlight on their less famous counterparts. As the teenage Autje, remarkable newcomer Kate Hallett is our way into the world of “Women Talking”—as well as its soul. The knowing tone of her voiceover, which looks back on the events of the story from the future, contrasts with the innocence she portrays in the film’s present. Up-and-coming actor Michelle McLeod is equally as impressive as Mejal, who turns to smoking to manage her overwhelming anxiety. 

And that’s just the younger generation. Seasoned actor Sheila McCarthy balances light humor (she repeatedly draws an analogy between the dire situation and her beloved horses) with fear and soulfulness. Judith Ivey, meanwhile, embodies the pacifism that’s one of the central tenets of the Mennonite faith as she works to bring the rest of the women back into the fold. Four-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand’s role is largely—and pointedly—offscreen as the evocatively named Scarface Janz, who rejects the proceedings entirely.

Though “Women Talking” is centered on the female experience, there is one prominent male presence. Emmy winner Ben Whishaw plays August Epp, whom the women, unable to read or write, recruit to take notes on the proceedings. Polley reduces the role from the book—which is appropriate, considering August himself prefers to fade into the background. Whishaw radiates tenderness as a man who has slunk back to the place he once escaped from, only to be confronted with immeasurable pain. 

Most major acting awards privilege individuals over the whole, but that contradicts the very spirit of “Women Talking.” At the outset of the film, the women vote on their course of action, which leads to the gathering that takes up most of the runtime. As the individual gives way to the collective, Polley and her team imagine a world where oppression yields a utopian egalitarianism. It’s not just that the ensemble is amazing; it’s that the ensemble is everything.

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