Where romcom meets reality
In Hollywood, true love conquers all, right? Refreshingly, Take This Waltz recognises real life is more complex.
Like many others I’m sure, I went to see Take This Waltz expecting to see a sugary romcom drama. From the trailer, it appeared to be a grown-up Juno, complete with a breezy folk soundtrack and a portrayal of relationships so rose-tinted that it sincerely suggests not even a teenage pregnancy or, in this case, one of the parties being happily married, could possibly obstruct the course of true love.
To my surprise, Take This Waltz proved to be a trifle more complex, not to mention insightful. But many of its subversive and unexpected turns merely disguise its largely conventional foundations.
Take This Waltz is the second outing for Canadian writer/director Sarah Polley, and centres on a married woman whose fidelity is tested by the entrance of a new, vibrant man into her life. Freelance writer Margot (Michelle Williams) is on an assignment covering an old-timey holiday resort when she meets the steamy Daniel (Luke Kirby) and sparks begin to fly. As chance would have it, they end up sat next to each other on the plane back home, and – would you believe it? – when they come to share a cab out of the airport, it turns out they live across the street from one another. Margot, fiercely loyal to her dough-boy husband, Lou (Seth Rogen), informs Daniel that she is off limits. He responds with a simple ‘that’s too bad’, and the two part ways. But over the coming months, their resolve to do the right thing is worn away by the almost combustible attraction they share.
The central players at first seem like soft notes lifted from the standard off-beat romcom songbook. There is the neurotic lead who doesn’t know what she wants and has a pathological fear of airport terminals; the painfully sweet husband who, incidentally, authors chicken cookbooks; and the swoon-inducing love rival, a rickshaw driver-come-artist who is endearingly petrified of displaying his work. The film’s set pieces, too, whether they are of cosy marital bliss or Margot and Daniel’s secret flirtations, are pretty pedestrian and unremarkable. Yet even in the midst of the most sickly of scenes, the screenplay will turn on itself and bring things crashing back to earth.
After months of stolen glances through curtains and intentional run-ins on the street, Margot and Daniel finally agree to spend the day together. They end up, as if they were loved up teenagers, at a fairground and, as they are sat on a ride, spinning and staring lovingly at each other while ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ thumps in the background, one expects them to finally kiss, perhaps just before they stumble off for a tandem vomit. But instead, the ride suddenly stops, the music is cut off and the now sour-faced couple, delivered back from their flight of fancy, realise the reality of their predicament as a surly, overweight attendant comes around and undoes their seatbelts.
Where Polley at first seems to be playing up to narrative expectations, she sternly insists that these sorts of moments only exist in the movies. So called ‘real life’, full of existing loyalties and conflicting feelings, rarely offers such joyous resolution. Each time Margot has to return to her marriage bed, a suffocating sense of shame consumes her, a feeling which only intensifies the deeper she falls in love with Daniel and the audience is left genuinely uncertain which man Margot will choose. Where one expects some advice from a feisty sidekick – something along the lines of ‘listen to your heart’ – to set Margot straight, the difficulty of her decision is truly palpable and, without giving too much away, there are no real winners in the end.
Yet, as much as Take This Waltz does a great job of counteracting its own sentimentality, it remains oddly reliant on it. At one point, when Margot resolves to stay faithful to her husband, she makes a deal with Daniel that in 30 years time, they should meet in a certain spot by the coast and kiss under a lighthouse at sunset, reasoning that by then she will have earned herself one extramarital snog. This incredibly cheesy proposition is soon undercut with another tremendous moment of bathos, but it remains oddly important to the story and an image which is revisited with increasing sincerity.
As such, Take This Waltz is somewhat undermined by its need to have its cake and eat it too, as Polley, like Margot, finds herself torn between two distinctly different paths. This is all a great shame, for if Polley had been able to fully commit to the fraught character piece she set out to make, this could have been something truly spectacular.
Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.
See the trailer for Take This Waltz here:
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