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If we have learned, or been reminded, of anything from recent Oscar races in which The King’s Speech defeated The Social Network, Green Book defeated Roma and CODA defeated The Power of the Dog, it is that the tastes of Academy members are completely separate and apart from the tastes of critics — and that Academy members actually tend to double down on their feelings about a film when they are told that they are not “getting” something that critics “got.”
I bring this up because the early critical reactions to Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, which had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival’s Palm Theatre on Friday evening following a tribute to Polley, and which UAR will release on Dec. 2, have been utterly glowing — but my Spidey sense, honed over many years of studying and covering the Academy, is that this film is going to be a tough sell to Oscar voters.
Based on Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel, which was inspired by a true story of men drugging and raping women in a Mennonite colony, the 104-minute drama centers on the deliberations of nine women from three families who were chosen to break a tie and determine the path forward for all of the women in the colony after the men leave to try to bail out one man who was caught in the act. They have some 48 hours to make a decision.
I think that Polley is a tremendously gifted filmmaker (see 2007’s Away from Her and 2012’s Stories We Tell), but my job is not to review films; you can read Sheri Linden’s rave about Women Talking here. My job is to try to figure out how the Academy — which, I should note, is 66 percent male — is going to respond to a film. In this case, the film has the title Women Talking; is comprised almost entirely of women talking, with little action outside of the dark hayloft in which they convene; and even features the two youngest people in the hayloft zoning out, with one asking “Why are you making it so complicated?!” and the other opining “This is all very, very boring.”
Everyone who sees Women Talking, from those who love it to those who don’t, seems to acknowledge three things: (1) violence against women is a tremendously important topic that is sadly both timeless and timely; (2) the ensemble of actresses at the film’s center — including Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey and Frances McDormand (McDormand is also a producer, alongside two-time best picture Oscar winner Dede Gardner of Plan B) — are wonderfully gifted and make as much of their parts as anyone could; and (3) the film feels like a recorded play (though, in fairness, so, too, did 1957’s 12 Angry Men, which wound up with best picture, director and screenplay nominations).
Again, none of this is meant to rain on the parade of those who love Women Talking. It is just to caution that “festival fever” for a film does not always pan out at the Oscars. Indeed, at Telluride just one year ago, many were already crowning Cyrano, C’mon C’mon and Red Rocket as Oscar frontrunners — but between the three of them, they wound up with a single nomination.
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