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TIFF 2022: Women Talking, Empire of Light, The Son

After the first weekend of TIFF, which highlights world premiere events, the fest opens up a bit and allows major productions that premiered in the just-wrapped Venice or Telluride festivals to join the party. Here’s where the conversations get very awards driven as the films that studios hope will turn For Your Consideration ads into trophies use the TIFF springboard to international attention. Standing ovations, presumptive nomination locks, tearjerking dramas—the weekend of fun titles like “Bros” and “The Woman King” gave to way to “serious” films on Monday. It’s time to get back to the intense stuff. Stop having fun. And, to this viewer, the awards-heavy material of 2022 is going to be some of the most divisive ever. There was very little agreement on the ground as to the overall quality of any of the three almost-certain Oscar nominees in this dispatch, and “The Whale,” which I’ll hit separately and Glenn Kenny already did from Venice, is going to be one of the most argued films of the season (I’m not a fan). Actually, the only Venice/Telluride import that seems to have universal acclaim might be “The Banshees of Inisherin,” which I’ll also cover in that other piece (and, spoiler, I adore).

As for the issue at hand, my favorite of these three fest imports by some stretch is Sarah Polley’s brilliant and devastating “Women Talking,” a daring experiment in riveting conversation as high drama. The film lives up to its title, taking place almost entirely in one setting and consisting of nothing more than complex, thematically rich dialogue between its female characters and the one man allowed into their life-changing debate. If you’re the kind of filmgoer who gets a charge out of deeply fascinating screenwriting and mesmerizing ensemble acting, this is the film for you, although a controversial visual choice could end up being the film’s most divisive element. There’s no arguing the quality of the writing or acting in this one as Polley’s cast all bring their best to the conversation, one that I hope continues for months to come whether the awards illuminati take to it or not.

“Women Talking” takes place almost entirely in a hayloft in a cloistered community in the heartland of America in 2010. The deeply religious patriarchy has forced the woman here into roles of submission, allowing them only chores and motherhood. The men have also been abusing the women for generations, and the sexual violence has grown more prominent. The women are being drugged in the middle of the night, waking up to bloody evidence of rape as the men have fled back to the city, to lives that the women are not allowed to have. It’s time for action.

Polley’s adaptation of the novel by Miriam Toews opens with a vote that ends in a tie between two options: “Leave” or “Stay and Fight.” The film to follow is a discussion of these options, and the only man trusted in the community, August (Ben Whishaw) is there to take the minutes and list the pros and cons of each choice—the women can’t read the list, but it will be preserved for future generations. What unfolds has been offhandedly called “12 Angry Women” as different characters share their strong opinions on fighting or fleeing, and Polley’s script circles so many rich themes, including the restrictive nature of religion, the generational differences of opinion, and how trauma impacts action.

In a true ensemble piece, different performers take turns in the spotlight and there's not a single weak one. Ona (Rooney Mara) is pregnant and fears fleeing in that condition; she’s also formed a close relationship with August. Salome (Claire Foy) and Mariche (Jessie Buckley) come at the issue with more righteous fury, tired of being used as objects and less forgiving than the elders, including Sheila McCarthy’s Greta and Judith Ivey’s Agata. Salome has a son approaching an age when he could be considered dangerous. Will she have to leave him behind? Mariche is being brutally beaten by her never-seen husband—she’s not here to hear excuses or forgiveness. Other sharply drawn characters get their chance to speak and Polley remarkably gives them all so much interiority and depth. They feel real, which is a vital asset in a film that could have felt merely like a theatrical exercise.

I suspect her most controversial choice will be to shoot the film with Luc Montpellier (who also shot Polley’s “Away From Her”) in a way that drains much of the color from the frame. It’s a washed visual palette that’s practically sepia at times, and it can take some getting used to. The choice feels to me like one that was made to equal the entire hayloft, making everyone look a little more similar even as the actresses work to define their characters. Polley is careful to never present her story as a monolith commentary on all women (or men for that matter) but she’s undeniably playing with broader themes than these specific women and wants to connect with people outside of Mennonite communities—the specificity of more colorful cinematography might have othered the plight of these women. On the contrary, we see people we know in these women who have never seen a television. We feel their pain and embrace their resistance. We put the color in. This is one of the 2022 films that’s going to produce some of the most interesting conversations and writing. I can’t wait for it all to start unfolding.

One of the problems with Sam Mendes“Empire of Light” is that it’s not rich enough to produce that kind of introspection. It’s best appreciated as a technical and acting exercise, a lavish period piece with remarkable cinematography from Roger Deakins and nuanced character work from Olivia Colman. They really make this movie an easy place in which to spend two hours, but the cinematic building collapses when one starts questioning the bigger issues that Mendes tries to flirt with here. He wants to be Hal Ashby, directly referencing one of the director’s most famous films in a key moment, but he’s not light enough on his feet to do so, and the way his script treats mental illness and racism feels insincere. It’s a film that works in its minor character beats but fumbles enough of the major ones to push viewers out of the very spell it’s trying to cast.

Colman plays Hilary, a manager at a seaside movie theater in the South of England in the early ‘80s. She seems to be struggling with some despair—she speaks of numbness to her doctor—and it doesn’t help that she’s basically being used as a sexual release by her married boss Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth). Things change for Hilary when the Empire theater hires a new worker named Stephen (Micheal Ward) and the two form a close bond. When Stephen discovers that Hilary’s mental illness isn’t merely her eccentric nature, it threatens to tear them apart, as does the increasing number of racially charged incidents around town.

Shot by Deakins and scored by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, “Empire of Light” is an easy film to let wash over you in terms of sight and sound. There are some gorgeous big compositions here like an extravagant fireworks scene but it’s actually the way Deakins films the simpler sets like the theatre lobby that are the most impressive. This is a beautifully made film. The problem is that it’s hollow. Underneath all that beauty is very little. Sure, it can be appreciated as a character study, an acting exercise by one of the best living actresses, but that’s not going to be enough for most people outside of the Colman Fan Club, especially when they consider how Ward doesn’t get anywhere near the depth of character he deserves, allowing him to feel like a cheap plot device. 

This really needed to be Stephen’s story, and someone I talked to suggested maybe that was the intention and then it was reworked to highlight Colman, which seems very possible. And the way the final act pushes the concept of the “magic of movies” to alleviate real concerns like mental illness and racial strife borders on offensive. I admire the technical elements of “Empire of Light” so much that I never hated the experience of watching the film, but truly magical movies linger with us after they end. The magic here is fleeting.

Which brings us to The Son,” one of the most discussed films of the 2022 festival season already. Florian Zeller’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning “The Father” came into fest season with incredibly high expectations. Could Zeller do it again? Could he get star Hugh Jackman an Oscar like he did Sir Anthony Hopkins? The subject matter of “The Son” could be enough for most people, but where “The Father” treated its subject with sensitivity and grace, this movie cudgels its audience with a manipulative script, some truly misguided performances, and even thin visual storytelling. It’s a melodrama that thinks it’s saying something important but it’s just yelling in your face, unwilling to do the character work to understand its subject beyond what it can do to provoke an audience with it. There will be people who have battled the issues at play in “The Son” who will walk out of this movie angry, offended by the way it steadfastly refuses to really start a conversation about depression. It’s too busy making you feel awful to do anything like that.

Peter (Jackman) has just become a father for a second time with his second wife Beth (Vanessa Kirby). He gets a call from his ex-wife Kate (Laura Dern) with some shocking news: their son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) hasn’t been to school in a month. He gets up, gets ready, leaves with his backpack, but never shows up. And the cuts on Nicholas’ arm are equally upsetting to his parents. They agree maybe he should go live with Peter for a while to try and put things back together, but Nicholas’ depression is amplified further by feeling like the one who his dad left behind to start a new family. Can Kate and Peter get through to Nicholas in time to stop him from hurting himself?

Honestly, while that should be the question of “The Son,” it rarely feels like it’s actually considered as Zeller and Christopher Hampton’s script keep pushing this poor kid down the track of their manipulative drama. There was simply never enough attempt to make Nicholas into a fully-fledged believable character, which is amplified further by McGrath giving a shockingly disappointing performance, one that’s so full of tics (squinted eyes for crying despite there being no actual tears, for example) and awkward line readings. I blame Zeller for never getting McGrath to the believable emotional place for us to feel his pain. He needs to be three-dimensional and real in the way that the characters were in “The Father” or else he’s a plot device instead of a character. Even the always-excellent Dern can’t escape the truly bad screenplay here, one that doesn’t care about its characters beyond how they can push around the audience’s emotions.

Kirby makes out better, but Hugh Jackman is the real victim of the shortcuts taken on the screenwriting and directorial levels here. He introduced the film at TIFF as one that he felt was important because of the subject of teen suicide and you can feel that commitment in his performance. He’s giving it his all. It’s just the movie that gives so little back to him.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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