There is so much that is delicate and soft, so much that is hurtful and hard about love when filmmaker Sarah Polley gets her hands on it. She has done it yet again in Take This Waltz, which stars Michelle Williams, Luke Kirby and Seth Rogen in the story of the death of a marriage and the emotional dance that led to it.
Williams, in yet another head-turning role, is 28-year-old Margot. She is almost five years into a playful relationship with husband Lou (Rogen), an author-chef working on a cookbook devoted to chicken (there’s a point being made). She sets off for a travel piece she’s writing. The destination is Louisbourg, Nova Scotia, one of those dressed-up villages with actors and props conjuring up simpler times when choices seemed black and white.
Margot is in a gray area, a subtle discontent that she can’t quite put her finger on and one that will take on many shades throughout the film. But this is also a story about the many shades of infidelity, and Polley, who wrote and directed, is setting up the question of it — to taste the forbidden fruit or not — which the film will waltz around in predictable and unpredictable ways.
At the village, Margot has a brief brush with a good-looking guy, Daniel (an excellent Kirby). He turns up again as her seatmate on the flight home where a little conversation and a lot of electricity passes between them. Chemistry, when it comes to describing relationships, doesn’t quite fit here. It’s more like an explosion deep underground that causes the earth to move while Margot tries to keep steady. Back in Toronto, a shared cab ride home takes them unexpectedly to the same street — he’s an artist who has just moved into the neighborhood. Just as he gets out of the cab, she gulps and says she is married. He hadn’t asked.
For all the beautiful dialogue Polley has written in Take This Waltz, and there is enough that the script earned a spot on the 2009 Black List of Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays, the filmmaker often communicates better without words. Margot always looks dreamy and distracted. She’s drifting aimlessly, and the beautiful opening sequence speaks to that as she goes through the motions of making blueberry muffins on a hot summer day.
Lou spends hours cutting and cooking chicken, rarely moving from a single spot, telegraphing a sense of someone who knows exactly who he is and what he wants in life. When he says to Margot, we don’t need to talk, we know everything about each other, he believes that is a good thing. Rogen has dialed himself down to play Lou, and he emerges as a stronger actor. In every move Kirby (Mambo Italiano, The Samaritan) has given Daniel a determined intensity that is embodied in the artful way he runs down the street pulling a tourist rickshaw — it’s his part-time job — later in his paintings and finally in the way he pursues Margot. A seduction scene in a bar when there are only words and not a single touch is made incredibly provocative by those choices.
Polley is concerned with the idea of how uncomfortable we humans are with ambiguity, which is fine as a thematic element but more difficult to pull off as a narrative style. It works more than it doesn’t. What is consistently locked down is the look. She’s working with cinematographer Luc Montpellier, her collaborator on the much-admired 2006 film Away From Her, and using her own stamping grounds of the Kensington Market area of Toronto as a backdrop.
There are other players in the drama, most notably comic Sarah Silverman. Like Rogen, she has tapped into a completely different side here. She plays Lou’s sister Geraldine, another young wife but with the add-ons of two kids, a devoted husband and a serious alcohol problem. She’s just out of rehab at the first of the film, and when Margot pleads with her to not fall apart, she is talking to herself as well.
Williams, though, is a wonder to watch. She has the capacity to literally shed her own skin, so fully does she step into her roles, with three Oscar nominations starting with her breakout in 2005’s Brokeback Mountain. The second came for her young wife and mother fighting to survive a crumbling marriage in 2010’s Blue Valentine. And last year she was Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn, a blond bombshell ever in search of love and trouble.
In Waltz, Williams is wobbling on an emotional high wire refusing to look down. There is some fancy camera work Polley uses to give a glimpse of how things are playing out in the long run. But somehow the waiting — for the fall that you expect is coming, for the marriage you figure will fall apart — marks Take This Waltz as one to make room for on your dance card.
Cast: Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Sarah Silverman, Aaron Abrams.
Writer-director: Sarah Polley.
Producers: Sarah Polley, Susan Cavan.
A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 116 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, sexual situations, adult themes. Opens Friday July 20 in Miami-Dade: Tower, O Cinema, Miami Beach Cinematheque.