Writer/Director Sarah Polley’s new film Take This Waltz begins when “Margot” (Michelle Williams) is away from home. She’s a writer on assignment in Nova Scotia, doing her job and minding her own business. On the plane back to Toronto, she’s seated next to “Daniel” (Luke Kirby), someone she’d spotted in Louisbourg but didn’t really interact with. Side-by-side, however, they do start to converse–as most people traveling alone typically do–and realizing they’re heading in the same direction, they decide to share a cab the rest of the way. That’s when Margot and Daniel discover they’re actually neighbors. They have probably seen each other dozens of times before (if not more), but since they didn’t know each other, they stayed strangers.
But now that they do know each other, Daniel’s proximity casts a shadow over Margot’s world. Even when she tries to ignore it, she now knows he’s always close at hand, and everytime she walks out her front door, she hopes she will see him but she also fears him. He has stolen her complacency.
Meanwhile, Margot’s husband “Lou” (Seth Rogen) is oblivious; he’s absorbed in his own projects, so he’s just happy to have her back home. Eventually they all meet on the street, and Margot introduces Daniel but Lou doesn’t sense any threat. And that just makes Daniel’s presence all the more menacing to Margot.
Polley does a superlative job of slowly drawing us into the rhythms of Margot’s daily life. Margot knows she has a good life and she’s basically happy and yet…
The person who also has a good life but can’t abide it is “Geraldine” (Sarah Silverman), Lou’s sister and Margot’s friend. I don’t think we ever learn how Lou and Margot first met, but Margot’s relationship with Geraldine seems so deep and honest that I’m guessing Margot knew Geraldine first, and Geraldine introduced her to Lou sometime later. Geraldine is married and she’s a mother, but Geraldine is also self-destructive in ways she wants to control but can’t. Geraldine senses that something has changed; Margot doesn’t reveal anything, but just being with Margot increases Geraldine’s apprehension.
I love the women in this film. Michelle Williams is always magical on screen. She has incredible range, and she excels in every role from “Emily Tetherow” (a pioneer woman traveling West in Meek’s Cutoff) to Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn. Luminous in every part I’ve ever seen her play, I honestly can’t think of a single Michelle Williams performance I didn’t like.
So the wonderful surprise in Take This Waltz is Sarah Silverman, who is tremedously poignant as Geraldine. She doesn’t need to know the details, she can sense that her relationship with Margot is unraveling, and that means she is losing her anchor. If Polley hadn’t created such compelling scenes for Williams and Silverman, the whole story would play out in a much more conventional way, and Margot’s decisions, when she finally makes them, would be far less weighty.
The men in Take This Waltz don’t fare as well. The actors are fine, but their characters don’t make much sense to me. As usual, I’m especially bugged by violations of my “Follow the Money” rule. When Daniel decides that he has to get away, he moves into a stylish loft, but how can he possibly afford it? And how much money can Lou make puttering around in his kitchen? Can a new book of recipes really pay the mortgage?
When Polley focuses on her female characters, Take This Waltz is wonderful, but when the men enter the mix, not so much. I wonder if, for now, Polley isn’t better at adapting screenplays (as she did so well in her last film Away from Her) than writing her own from scratch.
Michelle Williams (left) with Sarah Silverman in Take This Waltz, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.