One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three. The triple step of the waltz is a good simile for Sarah Polley’s latest feature film, which deals with the complications inherent when there’re two men and one woman. The one woman is Michelle Williams, playing Margot, and this is completely her film. From the get-go, as she appears out of the ill-defined blur of an out of focus lens, this is Williams’ picture. Her performance is deftly layered and charming, making Margot maddeningly flawed, insecure, childlike and human. If for no other reason, see this film for Michelle Williams. There. With that out of the way, onto the rest of the picture.
Margot is married to Lou (Seth Rogen). They live in a quaint house which, these days, would be referred to as ‘shabby chic’ (what a horrible term). Lou is putting together a cookbook of chicken recipes. Margot taps out words for a website, forestalling her aspirations of a ‘real’ writing career. They’ve been married five years. The sheen has worn off a little, but they’re still a playful couple, despite often finding each other at cross purposes. They exchange inventive ways of maiming each other, in a cute-but-stolen-from-Punch-Drunk Love way.
Whilst on a trip for her work, Margot by chance meets a man named Daniel (Luke Kirby) and the two seem to connect with that rare chemistry that can unite two people. Happenstance keeps them in each other’s company; their seats on the plane are together, they wind up sharing a cab… It turns out Daniel lives right across the street from Margot. Part of her wishes he didn’t, because as things with Lou continue to run cold, Daniel offers alluring temptation, with his quietly absurd bohemian lifestyle (the man makes his money by operating a rickshaw).
Unbeknown to Lou, Margot embarks on a secret relationship with Daniel, one that always threatens to become physical, to become real. But Margot retains self-control, out of devotion to her husband, despite their problems, and because she can’t bring herself to hurt him. But the temptation is strong. Daniel is openly interested in her, yet he too respects the pact of marriage, leading to a beautiful but sad dance between the two, as they play off of each other, dipping their toes into the fantasies of what-might-be.
If it sounds like a mildly twee, suburban version of Lost In Translation, then you’re not far wrong. Polley’s film is warmer, more luxurious in its colour palette, and less intimate. She never lets you forget the life waiting for Margot when she gets home. Smartly, Polley has the sense to make her characters essentially good people. Lou is not a bad husband. Daniel is not a selfish Lothario. Margot is horribly torn. And as the three of them waltz (Lou unknowingly), the film finds a rather bewitching stride.
At first I didn’t care. Not really. It was fine. But by the halfway mark I found, without really realising it, that I’d become invested. Take This Waltz had become a beautifully balanced film, endearingly heartfelt, rising above tired romantic drama story tropes thanks to a number of deft touches and funny observations. Two scenes that standout take place in a swimming pool. The first is brilliantly funny, the second is simply brilliant, as Margot and Daniel swim together at night, alone, weaving around one another, doing their dance. As a sequence by itself, hands down one of the highlights of the year.
Inevitably things get more and more complicated as the film veers closer to the dramatic moment of decision or discovery that haunts Margot’s dilemma. Polley handles this run up perfectly, and has full control of the climax… and then completely fumbles it. Deciding to have her cake and eat it, she awkwardly alters the pace of the story, upsetting the careful balance of relatable trouble and heartache, before frankly going on far longer than even Peter Jackson dared to with The Return Of The King. The natural end of the movie is about 20-25 minutes before the actual credits. This final section feels strange and disjointed, telegraphed in from a different film altogether. It’s rather like watching that moment in Forrest Gump when the shrimping boat Jenny sails serenely through the background… only to crash into the jetty. Polley simply doesn’t know when to stop, and the whole movie collapses.
It doesn’t completely ruin things. The movie has too many fine moments to be called a write-off, and as mentioned right at the top, Williams’ performance alone makes it one worth checking out. But it’s a maddening misstep that robs Take This Waltz of being remembered as something actually remarkable. I can’t really remember feeling so disappointed by the final reel of a picture. And whilst the final shot of the movie feels like a reward for Margot, as we’ve watched her struggle so, it’s too little too late, and the rot has set in.
I’m still awarding the film a favourable score, because when it’s on the right track it soars, but for me, it runs too far off the rails to be called a success. A genuine shame. Nevertheless, if you’re wanting something a little more, something a little different from a romantic movie, Take This Waltz might be what you’re looking for.