There is a crucial moment in Take This Waltz that takes the audience right into the heart of Sarah Polley’s infidelity drama – Michelle Williams’s jaded twentysomething Margot shares an exhilarating amusement ride with Luke Kirby’s lithe bohemian neighbour Daniel, as The Buggles’ Video Killed The Radio Star pulsates vibrantly in the backdrop. It’s a scene so blissfully conceived (if a tad familiar), and unmistakably crackling with palpable romantic electricity. And then, before we know it, everything stops. The ride is over. Time to get off and get back to reality. Both are plunged back to the humdrum ordinariness of their lives, especially Margot, who teeters into marital ennui – a woman slowly suffocating in disillusionment, lost ideals and crushing reality of ageing.
In a genre that has been beaten to pulp and done to death by Hollywood, it’s refreshing to see a romantic drama infused with intelligence and sobering truths about life and relationships. Polley, whose debut Away From Her takes a surprisingly mature look at a couple being eaten away by Alzheimer’s, mounts conventional tropes in her sophomore effort – marriage in crisis, infidelity, meet-cute encounter, an obligatory swimming pool rendezvous – and then cunningly strips away all traces of kitsch and familiarity to reveal a piercingly honest, heartbreaking portrait about the nature of desire and long-term relationships. Even the swimming pool scene (lyrically and subliminally shot) is devoid of any physical contact we’d expect in such a setting. The pair’s most erotic lovemaking consists of Margot and Daniel in a coffee shop, as he describes to her in elaborate detail how he’d make love to her. Polley knows and understands the power and beauty of restraint, also shown in the interactions between Margot and husband Lou (Seth Rogen underplaying to almost perfection here) during their anniversary dinner, where they share a pale conversation-free meal.
Margot (played with subtle, thoughtful nuance by Williams) is stuck in domestic stagnation, deeply yearning for a magical spark, hence we can barely blame her for falling in love far too easily, even if we stop and contemplate that meeting somebody on a plane who happens to be your neighbour stretches plausibility. In inferior hands, Margot could have been unsympathetic, but Williams etches Margot as a tragic figure, a victim of her own making, which makes her all the more human. Polley stunningly captures a passing of time that could have been Margot and Daniel’s months of pure bliss, but anchored with such devastating emotional undertow. The magic spark, no matter how bright, dies down.
A beautifully restrained romantic fable that paints more emotional truths about relationships than your average romcom caper. Take This Waltz, for all its imperfections, lays bare a piercingly honest and unvarnished portrait of marital ennui and the cyclical nature of love and desire. Prepare to emerge out of this film moved and sobered up.