Sarah Polley says stakes are 'incredibly high' in Women Talking, her Oscar-buzzed fourth film

Sarah Polley sat down with CBC's Eli Glasner during TIFF to discuss her latest feature film, Women Talking, a tense drama about sexual abuse in a Mennonite community. The movie is garnering Oscar buzz as it heads to Canadian theatres on Dec. 23.

'It's so much more than I hoped it would be,' Canadian filmmaker says in interview

Sarah Polley had ‘endless options’ while directing Women Talking

3 months ago
Duration 2:14
Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley, who returns to the big screen with her first feature in 10 years, tells CBC’s Eli Glasner how the cast of Women Talking played off each other and created a supportive on-set working environment.

Sarah Polley hadn't made a film in a decade. But her latest — already a Golden Globe nominee and a likely contender for the 2023 Academy Awards — is a true conversation starter.

Women Talking centres around a multi-generational group of Mennonite women who, realizing they and their daughters are being regularly drugged and sexually assaulted by the men in their colony, meet in secret to take control of their destiny. 

It's an adaptation of the 2018 novel by Canadian author Miriam Toews, who drew from the story of a real-life Mennonite community in Bolivia.

"What I love is that the sort of operating principle of the whole piece is these women, some of whom disagree on very fundamental things, have to come together to find a way forward," said Polley in an interview with CBC's Eli Glasner, a day after Women Talking premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

"In this case, the stakes are incredibly high. They can either stay and forgive and live in a world where they're subjected to constant violence and have no power. They can stay and fight to create a world there and hope that they win it, though for sure it will mean as much if not more violence. 

"Or they can leave and create their own world based on their own principles and starting with the faith as they interpret it, not how it's been interpreted for them."

Women Talking lands in select Canadian theatres on Dec. 23, before a wider release on Jan. 6, 2023.

Cast explored rich, layered characters

Amidst the challenge of working on the brutal, sometimes soul-crushing material — "We have been preyed upon like animals. Maybe we should respond like animals," goes a memorable line — Polley says the cast rallied around each other and nurtured a supportive working environment.

WATCH | A group of women reckon with sexual assault in Women Talking trailer:

She offered an anecdote from the set, during which one of the actors took a 10-minute breather to recover from a difficult scene.

"When this person came back, all the actors in the hayloft and the rehearsal space then had come out of their positions, and they'd made a circle and they were there to hold the person," she said. "They'd just been sitting there talking about the person, keeping them in mind and then [were] there to sort of greet them.

"That was the experience of the film. There was just a constant sense of, 'How can we be of service to each other?'" said Polley.

Among the film's ensemble cast are Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Rooney Mara, Sheila McCarthy, Judith Ivey, Frances McDormand and Ben Whishaw. Before filming, the actors explored each possible pairing of characters and fleshed out their dynamic, Polley said.

From left, Michelle McLeod, Sheila McCarthy, Liv McNeil, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Kate Hallett, Rooney Mara and Judith Ivey in Women Talking. The film is an adaptation of author Miriam Toews's 2018 novel, directed by Sarah Polley. (TIFF)

Some characters are blood-related; some have a hostile relationship; others are gentle and tender with one another; some disagree completely,  while others are wholeheartedly on the same page.

"To have the richness of all of those layers playing in each character, with so many people in the same room, allowed for so many surprises and moments we didn't expect or moments of relationship that weren't scripted," Polley said.

While Women Talking is mostly set in a single room, the women discuss everything from their relationships to faith and their visions for a safer world, as well as their responsibilities to their daughters and sons, so frequently exposed as they are to violent forms of masculinity.

"It was amazing because of [the cast] — they brought this kind of collective spirit and this collaborative spirit to every minute of it," Polley added. "They all shared a green room. You know, nobody was ever sort of off on their own."

Awards season coming in hot

(L-R) Claire Foy, Sarah Polley, Jessie Buckley and Rooney Mara attend the Women Talking premiere during the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival at Princess of Wales Theatre. They are four white women dressed in formal attire and they link arms while posing for the camera against a black-and-white step-and-repeat backdrop branded with logos for TIFF, The City of Toronto, Telefilm Canada and other sponsors.
From left, Foy, Polley, Buckley and Mara attend the premiere of Women Talking during the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival at Princess of Wales Theatre. (Getty Images)

The Toronto-born director, whose previous films include Take This Waltz and Away From Her, was shortlisted for an Oscar nomination in 2012 for her autobiographical documentary Stories We Tell.

She was recently nominated for a Golden Globe in the best original screenplay category for Women Talking. With all of the Oscar buzz surrounding her latest, is she prepared for a potentially trophy-heavy awards season?

After the TIFF screening, "If nothing else had ever happened with the film — genuinely, I mean this from the bottom of my heart — I would be so thrilled with what we got to do," Polley said.

"It's so much more than I hoped it would be in terms of people's receiving of the film and their willingness to engage in a conversation and share something of themselves."


Jenna Benchetrit is a web journalist for CBC News. Based in Toronto and born in Montreal, she holds a master's degree in journalism from Ryerson University. Reach her at jenna.benchetrit@cbc.ca or on Twitter @jennabenchetrit.

With files from CBC's Eli Glasner