5 essential Sarah Polley projects to catch up on before her new film Women Talking

The visionary artist has spent her career delving into the secret lives of women, from early short films like I Shout Love to her new book Run Towards The Danger.

The visionary Canadian filmmaker and artist has spent her career delving into the secret lives of women

women in a chair speaks into a microphone
Sarah Polley speaks during a press conference for "Alias Grace" at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. (Chris Donovan/Canadian Press)

Closer to the turn of the millennium, Sarah Polley was best known as one of Canada's top acting talents. She'd taken great pains to shake off her moniker as the country's "sweetheart" — one picked up during her tenure as a beloved child actor in series like Ramona and Road to Avonlea — and pivoted to scene-stealing turns in work by 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 her first Oscar nomination in 2008 (Best Adapted Screenplay for her debut feature, 2006's Away from Her), there's again Oscar buzz surrounding her newest film, Women Talking.

Following its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, Variety declared that Women Talking "has put a stake in the ground as the festival's first slam dunk best picture candidate," predicting that there will be plenty of nominations between the cast and crew during this next awards cycle. 

Sarah Polley shooting her newest film Women Talking. (Michael Gibson/United Artists Releasing)

Based on the 2018 Miriam Toews novel of the same name, the film revolves around a group of Mennonite women deciding how best to move forward after discovering a string of sexual assaults committed by men in their community. Polley became consumed by the book just as co-producers Dede Gardner and Frances McDormand (the latter of whom appears in the film) had optioned the rights to it. And while Polley was reportedly nervous to make her return to directing for the first time since suffering a debilitating concussion in 2015, the pair were keen to have her.   

But Women Talking is really just a single piece of Polley's larger career spent delving into the secret lives of women — their fears and desires, and how those sometimes go hand in hand; and the way that bodies and memories can be sites of joy and reclaimed power as much as ones of trauma and loss. Ahead of the film's international premiere at this year's TIFF, here are five other unmissable projects from one of Canada's foremost storytellers:

I Shout Love (2001)

Kristen Thomson as Tessa in I Shout Love. (TIFF)

In 1999, the same year that Polley appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair's annual Hollywood Issue alongside Reese Witherspoon and Kate Hudson — the latter on the cusp of her star-making appearance in 2000's Almost Famous as Penny Lane, a role Polley had bowed out of — she started directing short films.

The first of these to make a splash was 2001's I Shout Love, which won Polley her first Genie Award as a filmmaker. The short is a decidedly offbeat romantic dramedy in which Tessa (Kristen Thomson) convinces her boyfriend Bobby (Matthew Ferguson) — who's desperate to leave her, and only gets as far as a taxi before she begins threatening suicide — to re-enact some of her favourite memories from their relationship on camera. In now-typical Polley fashion, the actual reasons behind the impending breakup are gradually revealed in slivers.

Especially given how it might sound on paper, Polley's work is often funny when you're least expecting it — the stamp of an artist who often uses humour to deflect and process unpleasantries, and who tends to write (or, in the case of her adaptations, gravitate toward) characters who do the same.

"I can't be overly serious for more than five minutes," she said recently, and that quality has undeniably carried over to her stories. (Judging by early reviews, it seems that the sullen-sounding Women Talking is no exception.)

Away from Her (2006) 

That same canny tightrope walk between darkness and light also characterizes Away from Her, Polley's feature-length debut starring Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie. The two play Grant and Fiona, a retired couple who find their lives destabilized by Fiona's Alzheimer's diagnosis — already enough of a challenge before Grant realizes that his wife has fallen in love with another man in her nursing home.

Polley directed Christie to a Best Actress nomination at the 2008 Oscars, and received her own for adapting the film from the Alice Munro short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain."

One of Away From Her's most striking aspects is its lack of judgment toward Fiona; for Polley, what some might classify as a betrayal is instead something to be empathized with and even justified. It's an approach that would find its way into her next two films: 2011's Take This Waltz, the lone non-adaptation among her directed features, and 2012's Stories We Tell, the lone documentary, which both focus on women who've had extramarital affairs.  

Stories We Tell (2012)


Ever since her childhood, there was a running joke in Polley's family that she didn't particularly look like her father, Michael, and may have in fact been the product of an affair on her late mother's part. (Diane Polley died of colon cancer in 1990, days after Sarah turned 11.) In 2012's Stories We Tell, which Polley spent five years piecing together, she interrogates that joke-turned-rumour-turned-reality with the help of her four siblings, her mother's friends and colleagues, and her father(s).

Interspersed alongside the film's talking heads are Super 8 recreations of Polley's parents, which, combined with the story's inconsistencies from teller to teller, speak to the blur between fact and fiction — and how stories unfurl and get broken-telephoned over time.

As 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, mutate, and change in so many other people's words fascinated me. And as the story was told, or perhaps because the story was told — it changed. So I decided to make a film about our need to tell stories, to own our stories, to understand them, and to have them heard."

The film was shortlisted 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's fitting that Polley moved from Stories We Tell into adapting 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 household where she worked. Atwood's protagonist — the ultimate unreliable narrator, as she openly has gaps in her memory — recounts her story for an American doctor who's been hired to help free her from Kingston Penitentiary.

"Reading Alias Grace gave me a frame through which to look at a lot of other stories, including those in my own life," Polley has said, "in terms of there being many different versions of the same story and not one of them being the truth, but all of them existing together in chorus."

It took Polley more than a decade to secure Atwood's permission to adapt the novel for the screen; the venerated author turned Polley down when she first inquired about it after reading the book as a teenager, as she had zero films under her belt at that point. What began as a too-long feature screenplay evolved into one for a six-episode miniseries, and she eventually ceded directorial control to Mary Harron.

"No one else would've asked me to do this but Sarah Polley," Harron said as the series was being released. "Both Sarah and I are interested in what is true and what is not true."

Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory (2022)

Run Towards the Danger is by Sarah Polley.
Run Towards the Danger is by Sarah Polley. (George Pimentel/WIREIMAGE/Getty Images, Penguin Random House)

At a Toronto community centre in 2015, Polley was accidentally hit in the head by a falling fire extinguisher while searching through a lost-and-found box. It was the beginning of a multi-year nightmare spent navigating post-concussive syndrome, where, minus her Alias Grace screenplay, she exclusively produced others' projects. (She was forced to discontinue adapting Louisa May Alcott's 1868 novel Little Women, a job that Greta Gerwig would later finish.)

It was years into this nightmare that Polley met specialist Dr. Michael Collins, whose unorthodox but ultimately life-restoring advice was to "run towards the danger" — in other words, do the exact things that she'd been advised to avoid in the interest of not aggravating her symptoms.

In Polley's first book, Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory, she applies Dr. Collins's maxim to half a dozen difficult stories from her life, from her harrowing first pregnancy and labour experience to her decision not to immediately publicize a traumatic encounter with former radio personality Jian Ghomeshi — exhuming each one so as to master it.

"I know now that I will become weaker at what I avoid, that what I run towards will strengthen in me," she writes.

The book is a fascinating complement to Polley's career, recasting much of her resume in a new light and sometimes correcting the record when it comes to stories she first told long ago. Run Towards the Danger sees her finally extend the grace that she's always afforded her on-screen subjects — particularly the women, in all their complexities — to herself. But it's also the work of someone clearly more interested than ever in issues of accountability in addition to memory, making her adaptation of Toews's novel a particularly fitting next project.


Sydney Urbanek is a Toronto-based culture writer and editor. She has an MA in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto, which she primarily uses to go long on pop stars, MTV, and the visual album in the newsletter Mononym Mythology. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @sydurbanek.

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