Toronto 2011 Review: ‘Take This Waltz’

Tim Grierson
The Projector
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After the world premiere screening of writer-director Sarah Polley's "Take This Waltz," opinions were mixed. A woman walking out of the lobby with a friend was gushing about how much she loved it. Another woman on the sidewalk outside the theater was complaining about how preposterous some of the movie was. And then a third person, a guy on his way to the subway, mentioned that despite its problems, the film worked for him. I agree with all three people. This comedy-drama about the challenges of monogamy is uneven and occasionally awkward, but it's also quite affecting and accomplished. I forgive the flaws without quite forgetting them.

At first, "Take This Waltz" seems a very different movie than Polley's first, "Away From Her," a somber Alzheimer's drama that netted Julie Christie a Best Actress Oscar nomination and Polley a Best Adapted Screenplay nod. This time around, Polley is focusing on a couple nearer to her own age. Margot (Michelle Williams) and Lou (Seth Rogen) are a late-20s Toronto couple who have been married five years. They still very much love each other, but Margot feels stirrings after meeting Daniel (Luke Kirby), a part-time artist and professional rickshaw driver who lives just down the block. There's a spark between them, but will they let it lead to anything?

Anyone who falls under "Take This Waltz's" spell has to first acknowledge its weaknesses. While Polley (an actress known for her sensitive, mature performances) mostly sidesteps the cloying cuteness of the typical 20-something relationship drama, the film still has its tonal difficulties, particularly in its opening stretches, which are painfully precious and quirky. Plus, the movie's romantic triangle has a certain conventionality to it in that Margot is the umpteenth screen heroine who has to decide between the tried-and-true and the uncertain-but-exciting.

But one of the movie's best elements is how lovingly fair Polley is to all three characters. Where most films of this kind would happily point the blame at complacent Lou -- or cue the audience which guy to root for -- "Take This Waltz" goes out of its way to show how much love there is between Margot and Lou. But Polley is also wise about how love sometimes may not be enough, revealing that the couple's baby-talk exchanges and silly in-jokes can be their own prison, stifling the sexual energy and spontaneity that can help a long-term relationship thrive. Likewise, Daniel is presented as not a better option but simply another option for Margot. Its lapses into sitcom silliness notwithstanding, "Take This Waltz" works very hard to make sure its characters are more well-rounded than the people you usually see in a post-college love story.

It's becoming repetitive to praise Michelle Williams for her engaging, heartbreakingly real characters, but her work in "Take This Waltz" -- while less galvanic than her turns in "Wendy and Lucy" and "Blue Valentine" -- is another great study of a smart, thoughtful woman trying to figure out her happiness. That said, it's a performance that took a little while for me to embrace. (There's something a little too "adorable" about Margot at first.) But as the character begins to recognize her romantic dilemma, Williams finds her comfort zone, giving Margot a lot of depth but never letting us forget how confused she is. In fact, Williams is probably at her strongest when she's simply reacting during a seemingly innocent exchange in public with Daniel when he calmly explains what he'd do to her sexually. It's casual, sweet and romantic -- and also powerfully seductive and erotic, hinting at all the dazzling temptation of a potential affair. Williams barely says a word, but her face captures all of Margot's mixed emotions.

With "Away From Her," Polley at least had something to work off of, Alice Munro's short story. With "Take This Waltz," Polley is directing from her own original screenplay, and not surprisingly the story is a little more meandering. But it's arguable that the themes of her new film cut deeper for her: the fear of entering your 30s, the belief that picking a life partner means abandoning part of yourself. Those ideas aren't all worked out in "Take This Waltz," but they energize everything that happens. I'm still not sure Margot ultimately makes the right choice in a mate, and I'm not sure if Polley is either. But in the end, are any of us?

Grade: B+