In tried and true fashion of boy-meets-girl pictures, Margot (Michelle Williams) and Daniel (Luke Kirby) meet at an historical re-enactment in the French fort of Louisburg, on Cape Breton Island. She – a writer by trade – is updating the Parks Canada handbook; he’s a visiting tourist. They share a plane ride back to Toronto, and in a far-fetched coincidence worthy of Dickens or Ionesco (or Hollywood), they live on the same trendy west end street. And she’s married. To complete the triangle, enter Lou (Seth Rogen), Margot’s hubby, a genial sad sack who’s writing a book on the many thousands of ways you can cook chicken.
Sparks fly almost immediately between a sweetly-suppressed and demur Margot and the on-the-hustle Daniel, who makes a living running rickshaws around town for the tourists while struggling as an artist. As improbable as this set-up might sound, director/writer Sarah Polley makes it work by holding Margot and Daniel together within the same frame for much of the time – each scene building to the next and the inevitable climax, literally and figuratively. Williams gives a wonderfully brave performance (several times in full frontal nudity and twice taking a pee) as the conflicted young wife trapped in a marriage to the man she once loved. To imagine this waif of a girl playing Marilyn Munroe in her previous movie is to marvel at her acting range. Rogen gives a rare straight performance and comedian Sarah Silverman, as Lou’s alcoholic sister, steals every scene she is in.
The lensing by DOP Luc Montpeiller is gorgeous, and downtown Toronto around College Street and Little Italy seems almost magical. This fits Polley’s overall design for the film and is probably its main weakness. Margot reminded me of another Polly, the "organizationally-impaired" hero of Patricia Rozema’s I’ve Head the Mermaids Singing. Like that sweet Polly, Margot doesn’t really know what she wants in life, and this remains true to the end. The last shot is of her riding the Scrambler on Centre Island alone – something she had previously done with Daniel – with a big but uncertain smile on her face. It’s deliberately meant to be ambiguous, I’m sure to rebuke the happily-ever-after-ending stereotype of the classic Hollywood woman’s picture, but unfortunately it doesn’t work. The third act sags, and the audience is left dangling. It’s as if screenwriter Polley wasn’t sure of how to end her film.
A couple of nitpicks from a long-time resident of downtown Toronto. The funky house Lou and Margot own and the loft Daniel rents to consummate his affair with Margot are way beyond the means of any of the characters. That’s the real fantasy of Take This Waltz. When Daniel convinces Margot to join him for a coffee, they go from Dundas and Dovercourt to Kensington Market as if it was next door. (It’s a good 20-to-30 minute walk, a long way to go for a coffee.) When Daniel goes to the shore of Lake Ontario for his morning commune with nature, he stands on the Beach, miles away in the east end of town. When Margot goes looking for him later, she goes to the Beach, meets him by chance, and they spend the day together, hopping from the Beach to Trinity Bellwoods Park to the Toronto Island Ferry and back home again. What happened to the rickshaw?
Despite these credibility gaps that only an effete bicycle-loving-downtown-pinko resident of Toronto like myself would notice, the city looks great, the performances, especially by Williams, are strong and the script, apart from the third act, holds together. There’s no doubt that director Sarah Polley is the real deal, and with Take This Waltz effectively puts to rest any notion that she would fall victim to the infamous sophomore curse.
Wyndham Wise is the former publisher and editor-in-chief of Take One: Film in Canada. Currently, he is a contributing editor with Northernstars.ca and consultant with The Canadian Encyclopedia online. Visit wyndhamsfilmguide.ca.
Images courtesy of Mongrel Media - Used with permission.