In a lot of ways, romantic fiction is all about making excuses for infidelity. There are no end of stories out there that feature a main character trapped in a loveless marriage, only to be swept off her feet and out of the door by a dashing hero archetype. The spineless schlub of a husband shrugs, smiles and lets her go, content to let the caged bird fly. She's a free spirit and she deserves more than he can offer because… because she's the heroine, OK?
Sarah Polley's amazing new film Take This Waltz applies an overdue stress-test to the cliches, with a simplicity and honesty that's rare in the chick-flick world.
Margot seems to have it all. She is a successful freelance web designer that lives in a warm cosy house in Toronto with her husband, Lou, a food writer. She has a family that dotes on her, and wants for little. Yet she is restless, bothered and frequently on the verge of tears for reasons that she can't even properly explain. Her relationship with Lou is tender but childish, filled with silly games and baby talk. Margot seems adrift in her own life.
A nested set of coincidences nudges her into the path of a neighbour, raffish artist Daniel. He seems to see through her defences, understanding instinctively that she wants something from him. Gradually, Margot is drawn towards Daniel, allowing herself to be seduced. They do not sleep together. They barely touch. But the attraction becomes undeniable, and Margot eventually chooses not to deny herself. She leaves Lou, and in a scene familiar to romcom fans the world over, dashes to find him.
What happens next reframes everything we've seen up to now, and turns what has been a charmingly told and beautifully acted but predictable story into something with significantly more bite. And it's done with one simple idea. Polley doesn't end the story with Margot and Daniel in their love nest, having hot athletic Hollywood sex and gazing soulfully into each other's eyes. She keeps going. And all of a sudden the seeds she's sown through the story take root and push to the surface. Following a hilarious aquaerobics sequence, Margot is told by one of her classmates “new things get old too”. We get to see that life has a way of carrying on after the fade to black. And suddenly we see sweet, mercurial Margot in a whole new light, as the happy ending crumbles and frays, and a line of her favourite song comes back to haunt her. She's come too far. She can't rewind.
Frankly, I could watch Michelle Williams in just about anything. I'm never disappointed. I trust her instincts at finding and supporting the best scripts. She is, as ever, brilliant here, playing Margot with a dose of Manic Pixie Girl and a core of lonely vulnerability. It's very much her showcase, but the cast uniformly shines. Seth Rogan is perfectly cast as Lou, who gets a lovely grace note of dignity at the end of the film that shows there is more to him than the loveable but clueless cuckold. Luke Kirby plays Daniel with just the right lightness of touch. It would be easy to make him a lothario or a creep, and it's to the credit of both his performance and Polley's script and direction that he's neither. Sarah Silverman as Margot's recovering alcoholic sister-in-law Geraldine comes close to stealing the show, with a fearless performance.
In fact, fearless is a word I'd happily use to describe Take This Waltz. There's already been much discussion of the female nudity in the film, but it never comes across as exploitative. It's simply there. But to me, the fearlessness comes from the way Sarah Polley addresses the lies and bullshit at the core of so-called chick flicks. This is not to say it's an angry film. It's funny, warm and sensual to the point of overload with gorgeous, heavily saturated camerawork from Luc Montpellier. Seriously, it's so nice to see a film in colour these days without a heavy green or blue wash over the top. Toronto has never looked more inviting.
Take This Waltz has trickled out across the worldwide release schedules since June, and doesn't get a full release in the UK for a fortnight. Once it does, I urge you to go and see it. You will not see a finer, more nuanced or prettier antidote for the romcom blues this year.