I still can’t quite believe the little girl from 1980s Canadian TV import Ramona is now all grown up and an accomplished actor, director and writer. Take This Waltz is Sarah Polley’s third movie as a director, following All I Want For Christmas and the excellent Away From Her. In some respects it’s a rather standard story – someone is tempted to cheat on their spouse when something seemingly more exciting than the dullness of everyday marriage comes along – but what make it slightly unusual is that in this one it’s the woman who’s thinking of playing away.
Michelle Williams – who’s fast become one of the most fascinating and accomplished actresses of her generation, and also oddly interested with starring in movie about the breakdown of relationships – plays Margot, who meets the dashing and rather good-looking Daniel (Luke Kirby) while on a research trip to a living-history colonial fort. Their flirtation continues of the plane home, with Margot thinking it’s safe as she’ll never see him again once they land. However in one of those only-in-the-movies situations, it turns out he literally lives across the street from her but they’ve never met before.
At home Margot is married to Lou (Seth Rogen), a loving but slightly schlubby man who’s constantly cooking chicken while he writes a cook-book. Although the couple care about one another, their communication isn’t always the greatest, especially when it comes to their emotions. Margot begins seeing more of Daniel, with the harmless flirtation soon growing into an emotional affair. While she strongly resists going over the boundary into something physical, things eventually reach a point of no return that could completely upend her life.
The script for Take This Waltz landed on the black list of the best unproduced screenplays, and that’s probably because – as with many black listed scripts – it must have come across as quirky and oddly whimsical on the page. However to Polley’s immense credit, rather than using its quirks to merely make it seems suitably indie, they become the things that make these people feel real. From Lou’s constant cooking of chicken to the couple’s game where they say how much they love one another by describing the gruesome things they’d do to show it, the movie has a great feel for the idiosyncrasies of real-life. Every relationship is individual even if the problems they face are often more universal.
The movie plays a complex moral game, ensuring that no one is completely demonised even while the issues being explored are clear and ethically troubled. It would have been easy to make Lou a thoughtless layabout who puts absolutely no effort into the marriage in order to ensure we immediately side with Margot. However he clearly loves Margot, and you can understand why he thinks they’re living in some sort of cosy idyll and they’re both happy. Even moments when there’s obviously been a communication breakdown, you can understand why he’s completely perplexed about what she’s talking about, as the film has a sometimes keen understanding of the different ways men and women often think.
Equally though, Margot’s seven-year-itch (or in her case five-year-itch) is understandable too, even if her actions often stretch far beyond what most would say was morally acceptable. She knows that in many ways she’s lucky to have Lou – indeed I can imagine many viewers wishing they had a hubby like him – but she’s unsettled by the ennui that’s settled both into the marriage and into her, so when something new, exciting and potentially better comes along, she gravitates towards it. The film certainly isn’t an apologia for what she does, but it does a very good job of showing where she’s coming from.
Take This Waltz does come slightly unstuck towards the end, as while it’s keen not to minimise the results of what Margot has done, the upshot of showing that outcome is a movie that keeps feeling like it’s reached the end, only for it to continue on. Indeed there are at least three occasions that feel like a final scene before we get to the real end. It’s a difficult one, as the extra endings are necessary if the movie isn’t going to cop out, and they help fully show both the positives and negatives of Margot’s actions. They manags to do this without great melodrama and endless shouting (which is what a lot of movies would have done), but it is problematic.
Oh, and it should also be noted that if you saw Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman in the credits and were expecting a laugh riot, that’s not what you get. Although there’s some comedy, both actors show there’s more to them than clowning-around. Indeed it’s smart casting on Polley’s part, using the skills Rogen and Silverman normally apply to making people laugh for more dramatic ends, and ensuring that their potentially difficult characters are fully rounded.
Overall Verdict: A complex film that’s not for those who like a simple morality with clearly defined heroes and villains. However if you’re willing to engage, there’s plenty of food for thought, with very real characters making understandable if not always sound choices.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac