A lengthy but genuine examination of the anatomy of a relationship, bolstered by some terrific performances. Welcome back, Ms. Polley.
It has been half a decade since actress-filmmaker Sarah Polley‘s directorial debut, the award-winning Away from Her. With Take This Waltz, she continues to follow the theme of adultery. Shifting the gaze from an older couple to a much younger pairing, they are nevertheless in the twilight of their relationship. Taking its title from the Leonard Cohen song of the same name, in which “there’s a shoulder where death comes to cry”, it is fair to say that Polley’s vision of this coupling is tragically romantic, or romantically tragic if you prefer.
When Margot (Michelle Williams) meets Daniel (Luke Kirby), their attraction is almost instant, but Margot resists the urge to be with Daniel as she is married to Lou (Seth Rogen), a cookbook writer. Complicating matters is the close proximity of Daniel, who lives just across the street. Throwing her certainty about her marital bliss into a spin, she and Daniel secretly rendezvous for walks and chats, the intensity of their unconsummated passion heightened by their lack of physical contact.
Set in the sweltering hot summer of Polley’s native Toronto, Take This Waltz is tantamount to setting a romance film inside of a pressure cooker. The film opens in a kitchen, with Margot baking muffins, and as she leans against the oven we can almost feel the heat rising. Polley maintains this tangible temperature throughout the film, juxtaposing the rising passions of Margot and Daniel in the sticky outdoors with the almost claustrophobic heat of her marriage. Indeed, most of the married life seems to exist inside the house: primarily the kitchen and bathroom and indicatively infrequent visits to the bedroom. Yet Polley is careful not to portray Margot and Lou’s relationship as too fractured, with lots of early romantic baby-talk belying the growing distance between them. This tenderness makes Margot’s emotional, and eventually actual, infidelities all the harder for her to reconcile.
Williams is phenomenal as usual, in a role that sees Margot swing her passions between two men, in what is essentially a coming of age story for a woman in her late 20s. Rogen’s Lou, buried in his chicken recipes, play catch-up most of the time, having already reconciled with the fact that he is now in comfortable domesticity. Again, Polley writes him as loving, but mostly unaware of Margot’s motivations. Daniel is more difficult to get a bead on, a borderline stalker before Margot falls into step with him. However, it is not so much Daniel that holds the attraction, as Margot’s desire for something new.
Take This Waltz is mostly a wonderfully charming exploration of the fading of a relationship, perhaps hampered only by its detours and length. Lou’s alcoholic sister Geraldine, in a surprisingly dramatic turn from Sarah Silverman, may be one plot point too many, and a 360° sex montage just feels out of step with what has come before. Yet both of these elements serve to remind us that, as an older woman comments to Margot, even new things get old eventually and some habits are hard to break.