Sunday, August 19, 2012

Review: Take This Waltz

Love Will Tear Us Apart

Sarah Polley made a tremendous bang with her beautiful whisper of a debut Away With Her back in 2006. A film of raw emotion and insight, the poignant story of an elderly married couple dealing with the onslaught of Alzheimer's was mature well beyond Polley's years, and a genuine surprise coming from a young Canadian actress known for her indie roles and very occasional Hollywood projects. It's taken her half a decade and a handful of acting projects before hopping back into the director's chair, but she has finally delivered her sophomore feature Take This Waltz.

The film focuses on Margot (the ever radiant Michelle Williams), happily married to Lou (Seth Rogen) and living merrily in a hip Toronto neighbourhood. Margot's a writer of travel pamphlets and guides, and on a work trip to ye olde historical park she meets Daniel (Luke Kirby). In the film's only real contrivance, it transpires that they actually live right across the street from another. Margot begins to fall for this professional rickshaw driver / closet artist almost immediately, but forces herself to resist temptation as she is still in love with genuine all round nice guy Lou. Can she remain faithful indefinitely, or will she seek thrills and adventure with the new guy on the block?

Let me get this out of the way: Take This Waltz has some undeniable rough edges. Polley's relative inexperience with scriptwriting is evident from early on, and the film contains moderate levels of over-ponderous dialogue and distracting quirk. Kirby suffers particularly, as Daniel is straddled with faux-poetic treatises. Despite a generally fantastic performance, Williams also struggles with the odd misjudged exchange, particularly a plane sequence where she discusses her unconvincing fear of 'connections'. There are also a number of scenes that will most definitely divide audiences. A hyperactive sequence in a public pool (although punctuated by an amusing visual gag) and a very unusual yet technically ambitious montage that signals the transition into the third act are two scenes in particular that will woo some but irritate others. For the most part, this isn't an indie quirkfest, but there's hints that break through every so often. The soundtrack choices are also an uneasy mix of the ineffective and the inspired.    

Yet despite these misjudgements, I personally found the film to be an often beguiling production. It looks absolutely stunning: Polley and her art / camera departments affectionately render a dreamy Toronto full of colour and energy. A midpoint funfair excursion soundtracked to Video Kills the Radio Star is a particularly vivid moment, but there's plenty of inventively filmed sequences. The art design frequently hypnotises, and is rarely less than endearingly bold. Some may consider it a little on the quirky side, but I thought the film's visual identity was one of its strongest assets.

There's some awkward writing, but the storytelling is generally strong. It's emotionally honest, and for the most part devoid of cliché or sentimentality. Polley does an excellent job capturing the rhythms and routine of married life, and Williams and Rogen (much more likeable here than he was in 50/50) make for a convincing couple. But you can also see the lure of adventure for Margot, and the conflict between comforting familiarity and exciting newness is compellingly realised by the director and her excellent cast. This is a film of indecision and difficult choices, and while some may complain it's too long I couldn't agree: it needs to capture the frustrations and dilemmas faced by the characters, and the film largely achieves that. If some parts come across as a little repetitious, that's because the story dictates that they have to be repetitious.

Take This Waltz is a film that's imperfect, but it also feels unusually real and emotionally honest. It's romantic yet devoid of cheese, unafraid to present its characters frankly (there's even a few moments of raw commentary on the transience of youth and mainstream cinema's tendency to almost solely focus on the young & beautiful). It doesn't critique or judge or vilify: instead allowing the decisions made to have real repercussions that its protagonist and those around her have to live with. There's no easy resolutions, no perfect ending to be had. While the film's thematic core may be awkwardly verbalised from time to time, Take This Waltz mostly achieves its goal of presenting a grounded, complex relationship drama that offers hints of everything from joy to regret. And, at the very least, it looks great.

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