Rating: 18a – Coarse Language, Nudity, Sexual Content
Run Time: 116 minutes
Here’s a rare film that actually means something. Truly. It’s called Take This Waltz and it is directed by Sarah Polley, a very underrated Canadian actress (see: Splice, Dawn of the Dead) whose directorial debut was the understated masterpiece Away From Her. Take This Waltz is a beautiful companion piece as another intimate portrait of a woman’s life crisis. In Away From Her it was Alzheimer’s and here it is the temptation of infidelity.
But it’s difficult to reduce Take This Waltz to that line. Really, Polley captures the essence of real life and burrows deep into the human troubles natural in life. Most of the scenes unfold in small spaces, with human interest embedded in the subtle gestures of the characters. Polley’s new film works best when she steps back and does not manipulate the situation. She trusts her actors to carry the story forward and they do.
This all takes place in the smaller-than-life suburbs of Toronto, where the houses are close to the woods and their interiors are colorful and petit. You are also very likely to run into your next door neighbour at the airport, which is what happens to our protagonist Margot (Michelle Williams). She meets Daniel (Luke Kirby), an artist from across the street of whom she has instant chemistry with. He makes her laugh, in ways you can tell she has not in awhile.
Margot is married, however, to Lou Rubin (Seth Rogen) who is loving, kind, decent…but that proverbial spark is gone. Their days consist of cuddling limply in bed and cooking chicken side-by-side in the kitchen. Lou is a cookbook author and so his days are limited to the kitchen (as Margot protests: “you’re always…cooking!”).
Margot’s desires tilt towards Daniel, who rides a taxi carriage as a side job. He runs into Margot in the morning, playfully accusing her of following him. The two share a coffee and engage in dirty talk. Emotions are gently unveiled, thanks to the graceful execution of the performers and the complimentary restraint of Polley’s direction.
Margot is well-aware of her attraction towards Daniel, but she submits to flirting and then withdraws at the more intimate moments. She dances along the line without crossing over it. At home, Lou is caring and oblivious to Margot’s secret affections. In one great scene the two are on their anniversary dinner and are not speaking. Margot begs Lou to say something, but he admits he knows everything about Margot so the silence is fine. This isn’t said indignantly, but with an odd tenderness. We realize Margot and Lou do love each other, but their love holds different demands.
This is a wise film. It knows so much about life and it is written in a way only possible by someone who has truly lived through these experiences. Polley, only 33, demonstrates great maturity in her craft. You never sense, dramatically, she is reaching for conflict or tinkering with our emotions. She trusts the audience are sympathetic and can relate and embrace the characters on screen.
Michelle Williams, even younger at 31, is an effortless performer who plays all her roles – from Wendy and Lucy to Brokeback Mountain – at the right level. Take This Waltz might be her best performance, because it requires her to draw out Margot’s inner struggle through every line, breath, pause, and sequence. There is a supporting role by Canadian comedian Sarah Silverman as Margot’s alcoholic friend, but this is Williams’s movie.
If I have a criticism it is when Polley drops her guard and indulges in a more explicitly rendered “indie” style. There are some visually glossy montages and nifty camera techniques that take away from the film’s profound simplicity. Most especially near the end when we witness two characters engaging in ripe sexual affairs. Polley’s camera tracks around them, unwinding time and bringing these characters, inevitably, to a state of sexual and personal dissatisfaction. At this point, style speaks for content and simplicity is swapped with self-indulgence.
I can see some people struggling with Take This Waltz’s final moments. It can be argued that the film reveals itself too much. But I don’t think so. Polley’s decision to eschew the open-ended conclusion has its own effect. Instead, she bravely takes a stance on the inevitable pendulum of love, all to the ironic sanguine of “Video Killed the Radio Star”. At this point, Polley demonstrates a rare directorial skill by making a final statement without forcing judgment on her characters.