Closer to the turn of the millennium, Sarah Polley was best known as one of Canada’s top acting talents. She had gone to great lengths to shed her nickname as the country’s ‘sweetheart’ – the one she chose during her tenure as a beloved child actor on shows like ramona and Road to Avonlea — and pivoted to scene-stealing turns in the work of some of our most essential filmmakers, from Atom Egoyan to David Cronenberg.
Now 43, Polley can easily be counted among them. A decade and a half since his first Oscar nomination in 2008 (Best Adapted Screenplay for his first feature film, 2006’s Far from His), there’s Oscar buzz again around his new movie, women who talk.
After its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, Variety declared this women who talk “put a stake in the ground as the festival’s first best slam dunk film nominee,” predicting there will be plenty of nominations between cast and crew in this upcoming awards cycle.
Based on the 2018 novel of the same name by Miriam Toews, the film revolves around a group of Mennonite women who decide how best to move forward after uncovering a series of sexual assaults by men. in their community. Polley became consumed by the book as co-producers Dede Gardner and Frances McDormand (the latter appears in the film) had opted for the rights. And while Polley was would have Nervous to have her return to directing for the first time since suffering a debilitating concussion in 2015, the pair were keen to have her.
But women who talk is really just one piece of Polley’s wider career devoted to delving into women’s secret lives – their fears and desires, and how these sometimes go hand in hand; and how bodies and memories can be as much places of joy and reclaimed power as places of trauma and loss. Ahead of the film’s international premiere at this year’s TIFF, here are five more must-see projects from one of Canada’s greatest storytellers:
I scream love (2001)
In 1999, the same year as Polley appeared on the cover of vanity loungeHollywood’s annual issue alongside Reese Witherspoon and Kate Hudson — the latter on the cusp of her 2000s appearance almost known like Penny Lane, a role from which Polley had retired — she started making short films.
The first of them to cause a stir was 2001 I scream love, which earned Polley his first Genie Award as a filmmaker. The short is a decidedly offbeat romantic comedy-drama in which Tessa (Kristen Thomson) convinces her boyfriend Bobby (Matthew Ferguson) – who is desperate to leave her and only goes as far as a cab before she starts threatening to commit suicide – to piece together some of his favorite memories of their relationship on camera. In now typical Polley fashion, the real reasons for the impending breakup are gradually revealed in shards.
Especially considering how it may sound on paper, Polley’s work is often funny when you least expect it – the hallmark of an artist who often uses humor to deflect and process unpleasantness, and who tends to write (or, in the case of her adaptations, gravitate toward) characters who do the same.
“I can’t be too serious for more than five minutes,” she said. said recently, and that quality has undeniably carried over to his stories. (Judging by early reviews, it seems the moody sound women who talk is no exception.)
away from her (2006)
This same cunning walking on the tightrope between darkness and light also characterizes away from her, Polley’s feature debut starring Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie. The two play Grant and Fiona, a retired couple whose lives are thrown off balance by Fiona’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis – hard enough before Grant realizes his wife has fallen in love with another man in her house. of retirement.
Polley steered Christie to a 2008 Best Actress Oscar nomination and received hers for adapting the Alice Munro film short story “The bear came on the mountain.”
One of away from herThe most striking aspects of are his lack of judgment towards Fiona; for Polley, what some might call a betrayal is instead something to sympathize with and even justify. It’s an approach that will be found in his next two films: 2011’s Take this Waltzthe only non-adaptation among his directed feature films, and 2012 Stories we tellthe only documentary, both of which focus on women who have had extramarital affairs.
Stories we tell (2012)
Since childhood, there was a running joke in Polley’s family that she did not particularly resemble her father, Michael, and was in fact the product of an affair by her late mother. (Diane Polley died of colon cancer in 1990, days after Sarah turned 11.) Stories we tellwhich Polley spent five years piecing together, she interrogates this joke-turned-rumour-turned-truth with the help of her four siblings, her mother’s friends and colleagues, and her father(s).
Alongside the film’s talking heads are Super 8 recreations of Polley’s parents, which, combined with the story’s inconsistencies from storyteller to storyteller, speak to the blurring of reality and fiction – and how the stories unfold and break on the phone over time.
Like Polley, whose own voice is largely absent from Stories we tell, wrote upon its release: “The process of watching a story take on a life of its own, mutating and changing in the words of so many other people fascinated me. And as the story was told, or perhaps beakutilize the story has been told — it has changed. So I decided to make a film about our need to tell stories, to own our stories, to understand them and to make them heard.”
The movie was pre-selected for the 2014 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, and in 2015, TIFF organizers and industry insiders voted it one of the best Canadian films of all time.
Alias Grace (2017)
It is normal that Polley left Stories we tell in the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1996 novel, Alias Grace, based on the true story of Irish-Canadian maid Grace Marks, who was convicted of the 1843 murder of two members of the house where she worked. Atwood’s protagonist – the ultimate unreliable narrator, as she openly has gaps in her memory – tells her story for an American doctor who has been hired to help free her from Kingston Penitentiary.
“While reading Alias Grace gave me a framework through which to look at many other stories, including those of my own life,” Polley said“regarding the fact that there are many different versions of the same story and none of them are the truth, but they all exist together in chorus.”
It took Polley more than a decade to get Atwood’s permission to adapt the novel for the screen; the revered author turned Polley down when she first inquired after reading the book as a teenager, as she had no films under her belt at the time. What started as an overly long feature script turned into a script for a six-episode miniseries, and she eventually handed over directing control to Mary Harron.
“No one else would have asked me to do this except Sarah Polley”, Harron said as the series was released. “Sarah and I are interested in what is true and what is not.”
Running towards danger: Confrontations with a body of memory (2022)
At a Toronto community center in 2015, Polley was accidentally hit in the head by a falling fire extinguisher while searching through a box of lost and found. It was the start of a years-long nightmare of navigating post-concussive syndrome, where the less she Alias Grace screenplay, it exclusively produces other people’s projects. (She was forced to stop adapting Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel Little womana work Greta Gerwig would later complete.)
Years after this nightmare began, Polley met specialist Dr Michael Collins, whose unorthodox but ultimately restorative advice was to “run into danger” – in other words, do exactly as he was told. advised to avoid in the interest of not aggravating his symptoms.
In Polley’s first book, Running towards danger: Confrontations with a body of memoryshe applies Dr. Collins’ maxim to half a dozen difficult stories from her life, from her heartbreaking first pregnancy and childbirth to her decision not to immediately go public with a traumatic encounter with former radio personality Jian Ghomeshi – exhuming everyone to subdue him.
“I know now that what I avoid will make me weaker, what I run towards will make me stronger,” she wrote.
The book is a fascinating addition to Polley’s career, recasting much of her resume in a new light and occasionally correcting the record when it comes to stories she first told long ago. Run towards danger sees her finally extending the grace she has always bestowed on her on-screen subjects – especially women, in all their complexities – to herself. But it’s also the work of someone clearly more interested than ever in matters of responsibility besides memory, which makes his adaptation of Toews’ novel a particularly fitting next project.