'Take This Waltz' is the latest feature film from actress-turned-writer-director Sarah Polley, who many of you will recognize from her stellar performances in films like 'The Sweet Hereafter' and 'Go,' among many others. Back in 2006, Polley earned herself some critical acclaim by adapting the short story 'The Bear Came Over the Mountain' into the screenplay for 'Away From Her,' which she also directed. That became a distressing tale of a relationship facing the pain and anguish associated with the onset Alzheimer's and the unique problems a couple must deal with as a result.
In essence, 'Take This Waltz' is Polley playing in the same sandbox as she was with 'Away From Her' – albeit with a drastically different catalyst and sentiment that alters the emotional response by the viewer. Both films deal with the reassignment of love from a long-term partner to a new object of affection. In her latest film, however, Polley takes the notion of the transference of love, and examines it by using a straightforward approach. The film simply looks at what would happen if a seemingly happily married woman became transfixed on the idea of being with another man.
Tales of adultery are nothing new. But 'Take This Waltz' strives to tell this story without reducing it to some scandalous affair. The film wants to be genuine about its emotions; and in doing so, it puts the audience in the less common perspective of the female on the cusp of cheating on her husband – a perspective most commonly associated with men, and more often than not, men who are on a kind of quest to relinquish themselves from some sort of midlife crisis, or suburban malaise. Typically, in stories about adultery and the complex emotions that come from inappropriate situations with the opposite sex, women are thought of as the object of desire, and less frequently the perpetrator of such acts. A popular example would be the browbeaten or put upon wife who discovers herself through an affair and the subsequent sexual freedom is portrayed as some sort of liberation. The alternative, or course, is to depict the woman as something of an overly aggressive, sexually ravenous individual with distinctly masculine personality traits (i.e. Glenn Close in 'Fatal Attraction,' if we are going to pick a archetypal example in modern cinema). But Polley's story isn't telling it from either of these perspectives, and more to the point, Michelle Williams' approach to the role of Margot is distinct in a different, almost intangible way.
Margot is not the average character one would expect to see in a film like this. There is something not quite right with her. Her personality is hard to pin down. She exudes a sad, disturbingly childlike quality one second and an overtly sexual demeanor the next; Margot is, for lack of a better term, reliably erratic on an emotional level. She lives with her husband Lou (Seth Rogen) in what must be a very hip place in Toronto, where Margot writes for a living (but not about the things she wants to) while Lou is working on a cookbook that's all about cooking chicken. Lou even tests his recipes on his recovering alcoholic sister Geraldine (Sarah Silverman), her husband and daughter, and a large group of family and friends. At first glance, everything seems cozy, warm and loving. And perhaps that's the issue: Margot's life is cozy and loving; it's simple and uncluttered. She has a functional, pleasant relationship with a guy who loves her and whom she loves. Yet, something is missing.
While traveling for what we assume is her job, Margot meets Daniel (Luke Kirby) and through a series of coincidences, the two flirt with one another for the better part of a day, until she reveals she's married, and Daniel shares with her the fact that he lives across the street. What's interesting about Polley's approach to this situation is that there's an immediate attraction that neither one resists for too long. When Margot informs him that she's married, it is a confession, rather than a simple statement of fact. She's aware the intimacy they've already shared and understands that, to a certain degree, they've crossed a line. But desire being what it is – especially when it's right across the street – what perhaps would have been a one-and-done encounter, destined to be relegated to brief moments of wondering and small twinges of the heart, becomes a series of forced encounters, each leading to the same inescapable conclusion.
As Polley sees it, and through the actors' measured portrayals, it's clear that Margot's infidelity does not come from a place of malice, or even so much a place of lust (though it's there), but just from the natural upheaval and change that occasionally comes with the passage of time. To her, Daniel is just too big a desire to resist. And so, for the majority of its runtime, 'Take This Waltz' explores this unlikely and forbidden courtship of a young married woman on the verge of becoming a willing participant in the complete upheaval of her own life.
Since her turn in 'Brokeback Mountain,' Williams has seemingly made a career out of portraying women in complicated relationships. While Margot is certainly of that ilk, Williams manages to keep her character from being completely overwhelmed, but the film struggles to balance her twee, immature persona and the character's more prurient appetites. Though that is a stumbling block for her character and the film, Williams does manage to imbue Margot with a kind of sad understanding about the situation she's in that helps lessen the feeling of it all being so trite and forced.
Meanwhile, Rogen and Kirby enjoy great chemistry with Williams, while crafting significant performances in decidedly different ways. Rogen delivers a surprisingly subtle depiction of the character he normally plays (still managing to be funny, but without any overt attempts at humor), while Kirby essentially is portraying an older, more restrained version of his Hugo character from 'Tell Me You Love Me.'
The film struggles a bit with an inconsistent tone, but, to Polley's credit, there are no apologies or excuses made on behalf of Margot, or anyone else in the cast for that matter. The film isn't looking to point fingers or assess blame. To put it bluntly, sometimes marriages fail; sometimes people leave their spouses for someone else. And sometimes they leave a perfectly sweet cookbook author for the rickshaw-pulling artist from across the street. And due to that fact, 'Take This Waltz' manages to be an oddly sweet film, despite not quite hitting the target on the larger, more poignant, and deeply sorrowful aspects of a marriage interrupted.
Some of the inconsistencies are accentuated by the mechanics of the film. There is a lot of clever cinematography going on, but what exactly the deeper meaning behind much of it is feels unclear most of the time. Additionally, while there are plenty of examples where leaving a scene to play out longer than usual works to build the sense of exasperation and longing felt by the characters, too many scenes (such as Rogen's reaction to the situation) are left in need of substantial trimming. Furthermore, the symbolism is in some ways too superficial to be as effective as perhaps Polley and her crew (the editor and DP, especially) had intended. Things like Margot and Daniel riding the Scrambler; the pots boiling in the kitchen; Margot and Lou kissing with a pane of glass between them; and, most of all, the fact that Lou is writing a cookbook all about cooking chicken – the most boring and ubiquitous protein of all time – tend to make the film more facile than it should be, which undermines some of its potency.
'Take This Waltz' is surprisingly frank in its treatment of a topic that is normally played as outrageously immoral or explicitly melodramatic. Polley has crafted a film seeking to deliver genuine emotion, but adorned with some flourishes it likely didn't need, and encumbered by an inconsistent tone, it only succeeds part of the time.
'Take This Waltz' is presented wonderfully on Blu-ray with a quality 1080p AVC-encoded transfer that captures as much of the stylized cinematography as possible, without going overboard on those same elements.
The picture manages to adequately convey the hot Toronto summer during which the film takes place. To that end, there is a significant amount of warm colors and rich golden hues on display. Thankfully, the transfer manages to bring those heated tones to life without overwhelming or disrupting the actual image. Tones are rendered beautifully, as is the outside light that typically streaks through the young couple's windows and into their living room, giving an already evenly rendered image a real sense of the season. With all that filtering and creative lighting on display, the transfer still manages to have very good contrast levels that convey a remarkable amount of depth, while still leaving the film (shot digitally) with a consistent film-like quality more in line with its independent nature. Blacks are deep and solid, while the whites never appear blown out unintentionally, and when they are, they typically manage to be so in an understated way.
Detail and color are both represented well with this transfer. Wardrobes are bright and vibrant and exteriors of Margot and Lou's Toronto neighborhood are equally lively. While detail is good, fine detail tends to taper off a tad bit in certain scenes, though it does manage to be present in the close ups.
This is a quality disc in terms of the overall image, even though it doesn't pop as much as most viewers might like it to. Ultimately, it's good but not great.
Another dialogue-driven film that makes wonderful use of its DTS-HD Master Audio track. 'Take This Waltz' takes full advantage of the lossless mix with crystal clear dialogue that sounds rich throughout the film. Dialogue is mostly directed through the front and center speakers, but there are instances where groups of people are gathering and the result is an immersive, party-like experience. For the most part, though, this is a quiet film, one that relies as much on the silence between two people as it does their dialogue, or ambient sound effects. To that end, certain elements are brought in to accentuate the silence (the sounds of cooking, other people talking, etc.), and those tiny flourishes exhibit good directionality that really gives the viewer a real sense of place.
Elsewhere, the film's soundtrack benefits greatly from the DTS track. Music sounds hearty as it's pushed through all channels so that it completely envelops the listener and, as was likely intended, takes completely take over the scene in which it is used. Mostly the soundtrack pushed through the front speakers, but certain elements are occasionally found coming through the rear and center channels. Such soundtrack elements are then lightly accentuated by some subtle LFE that helps to complete the package.
This is an example of what a good lossless track can do with a film that is not as dependent on sound effects or surround sound as its more high-octane counterparts. As a result, however, 'Take This Waltz' does rely more on its soundtrack to make an impression in the audio department, which, as long as you're into the music, should be just fine.
On the surface, there's a lot to like about 'Take This Waltz.' Populated with characters that are brought to life by sharp actors, the film manages to score early on by garnishing a talkative script with people who are nice to look at (or at least familiar). It's clear that Polley's intention was to take a small story and make it as symbolic as possible, and to a certain degree, the film succeeds in doing so, but overly sharp dialogue begins to overlook some of the characters' motivations. Polley's story is mostly successful in its frankness and the way in which it is reluctant to fill its time with derivative storytelling techniques used by other movies dealing with the same topic. Due to its limited theatrical run, most viewers will be coming upon this film for the first time on Blu-ray, and while it's not as comprehensive as it should be – especially with an up-and-coming writer-director like Polley – the disc does offer a mostly pristine presentation of the film. It's not a direct hit, but 'Take This Waltz' is certainly worth a look.