Sarah Polley’s directorial debut Away From Her (2006) faced up to the story of an ageing couple’s love undone by Alzheimer’s – it dealt in the corrosive effects of time. Take This Waltz is her second film, and tells of a young couple broken by choice – it deals in the causes and consequences of free human action, and manages to do so with humour, a subtle pathos, and honesty about the complexity of relationships.
Margot (Michele Williams) is the key to this story. Returning from a trip, she meets Daniel (Luke Kirby), an enigmatic artist who challenges and excites her. If this were Sliding Doors, Margot and Daniel would go their separate ways, and different possible lives would be lived out. Mercifully, Take This Waltz steals the love story back from films like Sliding Doors, so Margot must live out a limbo between two lives: Daniel, it turns out, is her neighbour, and she is soon, in spite of herself, turning the fantasy of a life with him into reality; the trouble is that she is married to Lou (Seth Rogen), and still loves him deeply.
These are not characters that immediately gain our affection. In fact, one spends much of the first half hour of Take This Waltz worrying that Polley may have missed the mark completely (Is this film a vanity project for its stars? Is it a way for Rogen to add ‘serious acting’ to his CV? Do too many of the jokes play on clichés of North American ‘indie’ cinema? In short, is it going to be a sophomoric disaster?) There are, however, turning points that allow the characters to get under your skin, and Polley demonstrates great skill in seeding them throughout the remainder of film. The turning point for me involved a hilarious indiscretion in a swimming pool, and Williams’ willingness to realise a frank vision of the human body that no Hollywood diva would contemplate. There are plenty of other moments, however – bittersweet, careful and endearing observations about what it takes to be with others that build momentum as the film draws towards its close.
There might be a sense in which Williams’ performance is just too good: there are points when Kirby becomes an apparition in her presence, and Rogen too peripheral. That said; perhaps these are precisely the roles the male supporting cast should play. Margot’s torn desires and conscience are the central focus here, so both Daniel and Lou ought to feel much less rounded (if Kirby is an apparition, it is because he embodies Margot’s fantasy; if Rogen is peripheral, it is because he is an obstacle to its realisation).
Through Margot, we are meant to see more general aspects of human (and specifically female) desire. The real supporting stand out in this sense is Sarah Silverman (Lou’s sister Geraldine), who sheds her sharp tongued stand-up persona, providing Margot with a cautionary example of desires that have not been acted upon.
Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives, The Time Traveller’s Wife, PS. I Love You, and (dare we mention it) Fifty Shades of Grey. The past decade or so have provided many examples of just how much capital can be made from capturing the female consumer’s desire. Take This Waltz does not belong in this company – not because it fails to speak of desire, but because it does so much better than anything just cited: “chic-flicks” and “chic-lit” tend towards clear-cut fantasies of domestic, career, and sexual fulfilment; Take This Waltz deals in the nuances of desire and the painful liberations of choosing, and therefore has a richer message to impart. Provided you survive the film’s slow opening, and let its turning points work upon you, it is a message well worth absorbing.