Every once in a while, an actor’s personal life collides perfectly with a role. Usually, we think of this when the tabloids report that an actor and actress have become romantically involved while working on a project; so everyone rushes to the theater to check out their on-screen chemistry. But a more timely example might be the recent work of Michelle Williams – who was married to, had a child with, and was separated from the late Heath Ledger at the time of his death. Ledger was a once-in-a-generation talent, and his death is perhaps comparable only to that of James Dean. So it is no surprise that when we look at Michelle Williams, we think of Ledger and the loss that she suffered. Even prior to that, Williams tended towards characters who were emotionally fragile; with her elfin frame, cherubic face, and pixie haircut, she has always exuded a childlike vulnerability. But now her personal and public tragedy provides an emotional shorthand that is especially useful in a film like “Take This Waltz.”
In the film, Williams plays Margot, who has been happily married for five years to Lou (Seth Rogen), a chef writing a cookbook on chicken. They are happy but mired in routine. Because he is trying to perfect his recipes for his new book, they eat chicken every single night. Chicken cacciatore. Tandoori chicken. Chicken parmigiana. Margot likes chicken, but after eating chicken every night for years, she craves something different once in a while. You see where this is going.
Margot has a “meet cute” with her artist neighbor, Daniel (Luke Kirby), and before long they are engaged in some serious flirting. Margot is a good, faithful wife, but Daniel challenges and excites her. So she pulls him towards her – then feels guilty and pushes him away. This goes on for a while. It may sound clichéd, and if this were a movie made by a major studio with $40 million behind it, it probably would be. But this is an independent movie driven by its characters, and despite the presence of some indie movie quirks (Daniel is an artist who pays the bills by driving a rickshaw, for example), it succeeds largely on the back of its stellar cast. The actors excel in bringing these characters to life, and watching them find themselves over the course of the film is not an ordinary experience.
As Margot and David’s flirtation starts veering towards an actual affair, we see that there is obviously something missing from Margot’s ostensibly happy marriage. She loves her husband, but she hides her sadness from him – and she shares it with Daniel in a moving and memorable speech halfway through the film. She tells him that she has always felt like an infant – she can be fine one minute and overcome with sadness the next. It’s clear that she has never told this to anyone before, and it is in moments like these that Williams’s personal tragedy comes into play. Despite her radiant smile, her laughter, and her unique brand of silliness, we intuitively understand the deep and profound sadness that drives her character’s actions. Because of her personal history, this sadness does not need to be spelled out onscreen. We accept it as fact, and it endears her to us.
The two men in the film both do fine work. Rogen in particular stands out in a rare dramatic role, and he and Williams have good, playful chemistry, but neither Lou nor Daniel ever become well-rounded characters. I suspect this is by design, as they function largely as objects of Margot’s fantasy life that is in some ways the subject of the film. The narrative hems closely to Margot’s perspective. Because she is in some ways hiding parts of herself from both Daniel and Lou – each one is a fantasy to her – she never sees them as fully formed people. And neither do we.
It must be clear by now that “Take this Waltz” is a small and simple story, but it is never simplistic. In fact, it’s just the opposite. It drops us into a common, everyday situation among ordinary people and shows us the rich, layered drama beneath it. “Take This Waltz” is the sophomore effort of 33-year-old writer/director Sarah Polley, whose 2006 drama “Away from Her” impressed critics with its mature, graceful take on a woman struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. This is no sophomore slump for Polley, who has a distinct, confident voice, but Williams owns the movie, and Polley wisely cedes it to her. For Williams, it is a fearless performance that deserves recognition from the Academy. Despite her three previous nominations, she continues to be left out of the discussion of her generation’s greatest acting talents. That discussion is in need of revision, and, as she proves again in “Take this Waltz,” Michelle Williams should be a major part of it.
My Rating: See it in the Theater
Note: “Take this Waltz” is currently in theaters and available on Video on Demand.