Following her most notable directorial effort – the Academy Award-nominated Away From Her (2006) – Canadian actress turned filmmaker Sarah Polley follows suit with Take This Waltz (2011), a puffy and unnerving study of grown up problems and specifically adult relationships. Just as Away From Her was something of an examination of how Alzheimer’s disease affects an elderly couple and their once unbreakable marriage, Polley maintains similar themes but relocates them to a more accessible but equally challenging portrayal of a woman caught between her affections for two disparate suitors, featuring a fine turn from Michelle Williams.
Williams plays the central character Margot, a jobbing writer who meets the artistic, rickshaw-pulling Daniel (Luke Kirby) whilst on a business trip. They share an instant, intense chemistry fuelled as much by her sensitive vulnerability (“I’m afraid of being afraid”, she confesses) as his ability to pinpoint and make light of her various eccentricities. However, their looming and seemingly inevitable liaison is scuppered by her admission that she is happily married to cookbook writer Lou (a plausible and refreshingly understated Seth Rogen).
When, in a playful contrivance, Margot realises that Daniel actually lives across the street from her and Lou’s homespun idyll, the certainties that came with domesticity are shattered and she is forced to choose between the modest Lou and the more mystifying Daniel, with whom she secretly steals away erotically charged moments under the punishing gaze of a steaming Toronto sun. Known mostly for supporting roles in films such as Mr. Nobody (2009) and Splice (2009), Polley once again excels at weaving together the numerous poignancies of relationships with a cinematically aware – and not to mention an incredibly lucid, mise-en-scène friendly cinematography courtesy of DoP Luc Montpellier – approach to drama.
Take This Waltz is an offbeat and blazingly sexy look at the combined sizzling and cooling of a correlative three-way moored by the unreliable focal point that is Margot. Yet, It is with Margot that the tight weaving of the film unfortunately begins to unravel; though Polley sculpts an astute and observational character, brought to life by a physically and emotionally bare Williams in a typically engaging interpretation, her numerous self-consciously quirky foibles begin to grate, her whimsicality diluting the film’s exacting timbre.
As a study of a restless young woman trapped in a 30-year-old body she is yet to acquaint herself with, Polley goes to great lengths to create a cerebral understanding of her emotional crisis, but does so only by making her film gradually lifeless and unsubtle. Like the aforementioned fairground scene, the lights abruptly come up and the coldness of reality worms its way back to Take This Waltz’s surface, exposing the tonal shallowness residing underneath.