In the ten years since her last directorial outing, 2012's Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley has been busy wrestling - very publicly, in a series of characteristically thoughtful newspaper articles, and then at greater length in last year's memoir Run Towards the Danger - first with what happened to her as a child actor on the chaotic sets of Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, then with the wider questions thrown up by the recent #MeToo discourse. Some of that thinking would seem to have found its way into Women Talking, in which Polley adapts a novel by Miriam Toews set in the aftermath of a series of coordinated sex attacks by men on the women of an isolated Mennonite community. With the men departing en masse to bail out one of their own, the women are left to decide among themselves which is the best course of action to follow: do nothing, stand and fight, or leave the encampment altogether. Over two hours, we watch a debate that ebbs and flows, as heated in places as, say, the collectivism confab at the heart of Ken Loach's Land and Freedom. There are women who insist the group should stand their ground, as this is their home and their right; there are women who reason that staying put is guaranteed to turn one or two of them into murderers, armed with everything they now know. There are those whose anger at these atrocities blazes outwards, to sear any and every man who crosses their path; there are, too, those who maintain there are still good men in this world, and that even bad men can show sincere remorse for heinous crimes. (Polley, who has been admirably patient in her interactions with the still-brusque, ever-devil-may-care Gilliam, tips her own hand somewhat in casting Ben Whishaw - cuddly Paddington himself - as the women's loyal, supportive notary, a model of allyship.) The basic material is fascinating: it's a #MeToo debate taking place in an alternative dimension, one where nobody's heard of Miramax. You can see why so many critics have responded as they have, which is to say that Women Talking confirms Polley as among the most intelligent and sensitive filmmakers currently working in North America.
Another legitimate response, however, would be "what the hell am I squinting at here?" That more critics haven't logged this response - that they've instead been caught softpedalling around or judiciously avoiding discussing the look of the film - ranks among the most egregious failures of the critical corps this awards season. A caveat: critics generally get to see films in optimal conditions, whether at festivals or in studio screening rooms, where the projection equipment has been calibrated to produce the best possible image. I caught Women Talking at the Picturehouse in Liverpool - far from a fleapit - and it was clear within minutes that something had gone very wrong indeed, either at the point of production or in the film's subsequent reproduction. Polley and her DoP Luc Montpellier have chosen to film this material in the lowest light, using desaturated colours, doubtless intending to paint a broadly representative picture of the grim situation these women have found themselves in. The problem is that the film's medium shots become almost entirely illegible, and you can't tell who's talking in certain close-ups; one of the starriest casts of the year gets reduced to thick grey smudges. (I think Frances McDormand is in there somewhere, but I'd have to check IMDb to be sure.) Whatever debate that script opens up, the oppressive gloom shuts right back down again; even the most compelling ideas are drowned out by your frazzled optic nerve screaming up to the projectionist's booth. Why on earth does it look like this? Given that the film's internal debate is geared to finding the right, forceful nuance, perhaps we might put it like this: Polley is an intelligent and sensitive filmmaker who, this once, has made a regrettable aesthetic blunder. (She's not infallible: setting the end credits to the strains of The Monkees' "I'm a Believer" betrays its own kind of inexperience.) What's frustrating - viewing Women Talking in the light of the cautious She Said and standoffish Tár - is that this script represented the movies' best opportunity to re-energise the wider public debate. But that's the dysfunction now baked into North American cinema: a fundamentally unwatchable work gets praised to the rafters for what it's saying (rather than actually showing), and is thereby elevated onto several Best of the Year lists. Other opinions are of course available - a production this polyphonic isn't letting us forget that - but how can any film be considered a must-see when 90-95% of it is a can't-see?
Women Talking is now playing in selected cinemas.