When Margot (Michelle Williams), 28, meets Daniel (Luke Kirby), their chemistry is intense and immediate. But Margot suppresses the sudden attraction: she is happily married to Lou (Seth Rogan), a celebrated cookbook writer. When Margot learns that Daniel lives across the street from them, the certainty about her domestic life shatters. She and Daniel steal moments throughout the steaming Toronto summer, their eroticism heightened by their restraint. Margot discovers some unsettling truths about herself.
Canadian actor Sarah Polley made a deep impression as a writer-director with her debut feature Away From Her, in which Julie Christie gave an Academy-nominated performance as a woman with Alzheimer’s.
The film also gained Polley an Oscar nomination for her screenplay (adapted from an Alice Munro story) which, like her Bergman-inflected direction, was unusually mature for a first-time filmmaker in her early 30s.
The trailer of this quite tonally different follow-up promises a film closer to Hollywood romantic comedy than an independent art movie, an impression supported by the casting of Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman in supporting roles. However, watching the film it appears Polley is trying to do something a little more complex by walking a fine line between commercial entertainment and artistic integrity.
Props to Polley for trying to pull off something a bit tricky, if she doesn’t entirely succeed. Littered with a few too many clunkily scripted moments to be easily overlooked, including an over-dependence on outrageous coincidence, Take This Waltz is nonetheless rewarding for a lead performance from Michelle Williams that, even by her own standards, hits the heights. The film is a mixed success, maybe, but that’s better than a mixed failure.
The story is a loose reworking of Brief Encounter, in which a couple keep meeting because of their mutual attraction but hold back from sleeping together because the woman is married. David Lean’s 1945 classic is remembered as a weepie, albeit an unusually restrained one, but Polley’s touch is lighter.
Williams’ Margot is a budding writer whose marriage to Lou (a surprisingly effective Rogen), a jocular author of chicken recipe books, is warm, settled and loving. Even if the first flushes of romantic desire have worn off, they obviously have a lot of fun together.
When Margot goes on a business trip and meets good-looking Daniel (Luke Kirby), she seems determined that nothing untoward will happen, even if the good-looking stranger would obviously like to tear her clothes off. The catch is that he turns out to be her new neighbour, living diagonally across the street in one of the more charmingly picturesque suburbs of Toronto – see page two of 'Screenwriting Traps Best Avoided: Convenient Coincidences’. Putting this man to the back of her mind is not going to be easy.
Daniel is a rickshaw driver in his professional life (yes, really) and a serious painter in his private hours who refuses to sully his art by selling it. If this sounds like a too-good-to-be-true, female audience wish-fulfillment stereotype rather than a fully realised character, that’s because it is. A suitably charismatic and skilful actor could have provided compensation for the thinness of the characterisation as written, but Kirby is not that actor.
Williams, by contrast, gives vivid life to the film’s central dramatic dilemma: submit to overwhelming sexual temptation, or stay loyal to the husband she still loves? As a woman in a state of torment, so badly wanting what her conscience tells her she can’t have, Williams is rivetingly assured. Margot’s conflicted emotions flicker across her face in a hugely subtle variety of ways, but none so compellingly as when (to go all Freudian on you for a minute) her unconscious shouts 'yes’ while her superego screams 'no’.
The film takes its title, incidentally, from a Leonard Cohen song that accompanies a fantasy sequence late in the storyline but is not repeated. Buggles’ 'Video Killed the Radio Star’ is played twice. Somehow I’m not surprised that Polley didn’t see that one working as a title.