Sarah Polley made her name as an actress, notably with her two Atom Egoyan collaborations, Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter, before trying her directorial hand with 2006’s Away From Her (executive produced by Egoyan), which found its place on the top-10 lists of many critics. The follow-up, Take This Waltz shows that Polley has inherited Egoyan’s cinematic eye, as she crafts images within the full-frame, utilizing re-focuses and long takes to give her film a fluid, lyrical appearance.
Take This Waltz begins strangely, with Margot (Michelle Williams) wandering around an old-fashioned part of Nova Scotia and witnessing an adulterer being flogged. Asked to whip him, Margot is extremely reluctant, but an attractive man named Daniel (Luke Kirby) urges her on, and although Margot gives a couple of more respectable hits. The two happen to share a plane and Margot gives a couple secrets, primarily a “fear of being in-between things” that she probably would not give if she knew that Daniel actually lived across the street from her.
One problem: Margot has been married to Lou (Seth Rogen, surprisingly restrained and vulnerable) for five years. Lou is a sweet man, in love, a great cook, and in things for the long term. Margot, however, is perhaps more comfortable in marriage than excited by it, stuck in a routine love that is happy enough but maybe should be better than it is. She isn’t sure, and neither is Daniel isn’t sure who continues to (quite literally) stalk Margot while maintaining a respectful distance.
A movie like this is heavily dependent on acting and writing in particular. Michelle Williams, one of the greatest young actresses of today (see her play completely different roles in Brokeback Mountain, Blue Valentine, Meek’s Cutoff, and My Week with Marilyn) ensures that acting is covered. If Take This Waltz were the cheesiest and least insightful relationship comedy-drama ever made, Williams could probably make it worth watching, but Rogen and the rest of the supporting act hold their own, too. Regardless, Take This Waltz is not cheesy in the slightest. It’s carefully calculated, with dialogue that creates attraction but stays far away from the cinematic dream girl that this movie could easily fall victim to. Put the two together, and we have a movie about a woman trapped in a difficult place, one who may, in her muted happiness, wonder for a long time what could have been or instead giving up a relationship in which she is loved in hopes of being more in love, maybe as in love as Lou is. These are very real people, acting very honestly and providing a lot of truth about love and relationships for the audience to think about. And sadly, that’s not as common as it should be, so when it works as well as it does here, you can’t miss it.
If the script has a notable flaw, it’s that the film plays well past a couple good endings. On the other hand, when it actually does end, everything comes together, and that is what makes Take This Waltz so effective. The adulterer being beaten at the beginning of the film that has Margot’s mercy isn’t just foreshadowing, it’s hugely symbolic of contextual importance, of sacrifices and difficult decisions that don’t always satisfy. We get a glimpse of another couple, friends of Lou and Margot, whose marriage has many parallels to their own, and that marriage’s ending suggests the alternative that might have been Margot’s. It’s a very profound moment, but like all things love and life, the explanation is mostly speculative, the possibility is just that—possible, but uncertain.
Polley explores all of these themes as deeply as she possibly can, and although the confidence is somewhat lacking as she uses an excessive amount of music to accompany some of the film’s most poignant scenes, but otherwise, her direction cuts to the core. Combined with strong performances, Polley’s placement of mirrors, use of focus, and seamless dialogue between shot/reverse-shot and long takes lends every moment precisely the level of importance it needs to have, never appearing overwrought or pretentious. Take, for example, the contrast between the sex-scene between Margot and Lou and the imagined one between Lou and Daniel, or between the crowded pool and the empty pool, the latter of each conjure a kind of magic that makes Margot’s fear of “being in-between thing” both painfully close and hopelessly out of mind.
There is an extended communal shower scene in Take This Waltz, in which women of all different ages and sizes shower together after an aerobics work-out in a pool. The body of Michelle Williams is not given any more attention or flattering looks than the body of any other women, suggesting that this chance encounter and desire for love and happiness in addition to comfort is shared. More than just the pretty girls can have two likable and caring men as suitors. In a movie that is riddled with uncertainty, it’s the inclusive note that we all deserve—and will get a chance—at our own happiness. It’s this level of subtext, embedded entirely in Polley’s visual choices that elevate Take This Waltz from a good movie to a great one. In a movie so heavily dependent on honesty and keeping sentiment away from gratuity, everything clicks and contributes in a unique way. The way the story unfolds extends beyond our ability to simply explain what it does. What it does needs to be done, but how it does it is what makes it art.