Magnolia Pictures // 2011 // 116 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // November 27th, 2012
"Life has a gap in it...You don't go crazy trying to fill it." -- Geraldine (Sarah Silverman)
Strangely, infidelity is not a particularly taboo topic in Hollywood films. However, it's something that isn't treated with any seriousness by most films. Infidelity is a convenient brush used to paint unsympathetic characters (How many romcoms begin with a cheating partner?) or it becomes the center of the plot in some unrealistic thriller (Remember when that was the big thing back in the late eighties and early nineties?). Still, few Hollywood films treat infidelity, and more importantly, the difficulty some people have remaining monogamous, with the seriousness the topic deserves. Luckily, we have indie films to scratch that particular itch, and Take This Waltz, the second feature from actress-turned-director Sarah Polley, offers viewers a frank take on what it means to cheat on a partner.
Margot (Michelle Williams, Shutter Island) meets Daniel (Luke Kirby, Shattered Glass) on a plane. They chat, they flirt, and eventually share a cab because they live in the same neighborhood. Sparks are flying, until Margot tells Daniel that she's married (to Seth Rogan, Observe and Report). Since they live in the same neighborhood, Margot and Daniel see each other constantly, especially as Margot starts inventing reasons to see Daniel. The rest of the film follows Margot as she negotiates the treacherous terrain of marital fidelity.
The science goes back and forth about humans and monogamy. Some argue that it's in our nature to mate for life (to promote successful child rearing), while others say that non-monogamy is more natural (the better to spread our genetic material far and wide in the hopes of landing in fertile soil). In many ways it doesn't matter what the science says, because there's a terrible fact that few people want to confront: no matter how "natural" monogamy may be, it's not an easy choice for everyone. Some people (and they may be decent, kind, loving people, no matter how they're portrayed in films) have a difficult time staying in a traditional romantic relationship with a single partner.
The best thing about Take This Waltz is that it treats this fact seriously. It's not an "I can't stay in a relationship because I'm having too much fun kind of movie" and it's also not a "I'm going to pretend the rest of the world doesn't exist so I can sleep with whomever I want" movie either. Instead, it deals frankly with the problems that one woman experiences when she finds herself attracted to a man who isn't her husband. Though the film glosses over some things (see the Rebuttal for more), it treats seriously both the erotic nature of being attracted to someone you shouldn't be but also the consequences of acting on that decision. There's definitely a vicarious thrill to accompanying Margot on her journey, though Polley is smart enough to make us feel the consequences too.
Polley waited five years to follow up her critically acclaimed first feature (Away from Her), and though I don't know why she waited that long, I can say she obviously earned some credits with her fellow actors. The cast of Take This Waltz is positively perfect. Michelle Williams is her usual chameleon-like self, disappears into her role here. We want her to be happy even when we know she's making the wrong choice. Luke Kirby is wonderful at riding the fine line between being charming enough to win over Margot (and us) while not appearing like a jerk for pushing her to cheat on her husband. Seth Rogan pushes himself into new territory as that husband, playing up his vulnerability in a way that previous roles have only hinted at. Finally, Sarah Silverman takes an unusually dramatic role and brings a touch of darkness to the proceedings.
Take This Waltz (Blu-ray) is solid. The film was shot in HD, and this 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer does the source justice. Detail is strong throughout, and black levels are deep and generally noise-free. The film's colors are intentionally unrealistic -- a bit too warm here, a bit too saturated there -- and that comes through in this transfer without any bleeding. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is equally impressive. The film's sound design is more effective than many dialogue-heavy indie flicks would go for, meaning we get a pretty immersive soundstage throughout. Directionality is strong, dialogue is clear and punchy, and the use of music is balanced.
Extras start off with a 38-minute making-of featurette. It's got Sarah Polley talking about the film, some behind-the-scenes footage, and interviews with the cast. A commentary track would have been great (I'd love to have Williams, Rogan, and Silverman in a room together), but this featurette does a fine job presenting the making of the film. There's also a short promo piece and the film's theatrical trailer to round things out.
Take This Waltz can certainly be a bit indier-than-thou in places. The opening scene features Margot in her kitchen, baking in an apron. There's nothing surprising about that -- the scene communicates that she's a homemaker. However, what could be conveyed in a 10-second montage gets several minutes, as we see shots of the oven, Margot's face, and (somewhat inexplicably) her bare feet. Not all of the shots are in focus. Though the cinematography is pretty to look at, it all feels a bit contrived and excessively stylized. The plot often feels the same way. Though it treats the subject of infidelity with clarity and honesty, to do so, it presents a strangely impossible world. Margot and her husband aren't doing too great financially (she's underemployed and he's an unpublished writer), while Daniel is a struggling artist -- and yet they live in a pretty decent neighborhood and have time to flirt. For a film about something as emotionally messy as infidelity, it can all feel a bit too neat in places.
I want to love Take This Waltz for providing one of the most frank depictions of the perils of (non)monogamy in the film world, but the sometimes excessive stylization makes the film hard to recommend to those not well-versed in sitting through indie features. For the performances alone, the film is worth taking a chance on, but it's definitely not for everyone.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R