REVIEW: Take This Waltz Hums to the Conflicts of the Heart
Take This Waltz is an unusually kind film about infidelity -- not because it sidesteps or shortchanges heartbreak, but because it doesn't let any one of its characters bear the full burden of blame. That such a thing needs to or should even be assigned in this scenario is beside the point, as the film defers to the vagueries of the human heart and the way we can, despite our better judgment, form a connection with someone that can't easily be set aside.
It's tempting to glibly connect this clear-eyed empathy with the fact that Take This Waltz is Canadian and somehow inherently prone to niceness -- it's set in a rosy version of Toronto in which the characters all live in charmingly shabby chic houses and sporadically work in quirky jobs. But what it actually comes from, I think, is that the film is the sophomore feature of actress-turned-director Sarah Polley, who constructs her central love triangle with a determinedly feminine perspective and places all of the choice on her female protagonist Margot, played with typical grace by Michelle Williams.
Margot wants anything but to have to make a difficult call, especially one that will result in someone getting hurt. One of the film's first scenes finds her visiting the living history museum of the Fortress of Louisbourg for work and getting pulled in front of a crowd by costumed, in-character staffers to help with a flogging. "Put your back into it!" yells a man from the crowd when she ineffectually flails at the prisoner, clearly mortified. Later, she ends up sitting next to the heckler on the plane. His name is Daniel (Luke Kirby), and he's just watched her board in a wheelchair despite not having needed one before, leading her to confess that she pretends at airports because of her terror of missed connections, something born not out of a need not to miss a flight but because, as she puts it, "I'm afraid of wondering if I'll miss it. I don't like being in between things."
Margot will, however, spend the movie in between things -- between Daniel, who turns out to live across the street ("Shit!" she mutters when she finds out), and Lou (Seth Rogen), the husband of five years with whom she shares a loving if childlike and seemingly no longer passionate relationship. Margot loves Lou -- the two tussle like kids and talk adoring about the terrible violence they're going to do one another ("I'm going to put your spleen through a meat grinder," Lou sighs) -- but she may not be in love with him any longer, and she has an undeniable heated spark with Daniel, an artist who pulls a rickshaw and who watches her with guarded longing.
Take This Waltz, which was also written by Polley, has moments of overdetermined dialogue -- the line about airport connections is one, and another finds Margot describing Lou, who's a cookbook writer, as "a really good cook, if you like chicken." It's stronger in its moments of wordless sensuality, from its opening scene in which Margot makes muffins, the camera drifting to her bare feet and then her face as she leans it against the over glass. Daniel offers to take Margot and Lou downtown in his rickshaw when they're headed out to celebrate their anniversary, and we track her gaze across the muscles of his arms and back, catching his eye in the side-view mirror.
The draw of the flesh is not inconsiderable, and Take This Waltz doesn't make it so easy as being a kind of passing temptation, an indulgence to be resisted. Margot and Lou have a stable and relatively happy life together -- we see them at home and in the company of their friends and family, including Lou's sister Geraldine (a memorable Sarah Silverman), a recovering alcoholic. It's a lot to trade for attraction, no matter how significant, but the film feasibly puts the two on a level, leaving Margot to navigate the decision with growing distress as she tries to avoid Daniel, only to go out of her way to run into him, and then flees back to Lou professing her love and fear.
Kirby makes his improbable swain just dangerous enough, the embodiment of the promise of the new, while Rogen shows off his dramatic chops as a man who's obviously never given thought during his time with Margot of what things would be like without her. But the weight of the film rests on Williams, and she finds a poignant and quiet agony in her character as she realizes she's the only one who can make this decision and must deal with the consequences either way, after time and again trying to push it off or onto other people. It's a world of bittersweet sophistication from Polley, and one that accepts that, as a stranger reminds Margot at a swim class, "new things get old," but that doesn't make them any less appealing.