An intriguingly discreet performer in her own right, Canadian actress Sarah Polley has made a point of never making the obvious film choices - something that she does as well as a director. Her directing debut, Away from Her, gave Julie Christie an Oscar nomination in an adaptation of an Alice Munro short story about love among the elderly set against the initial onset of Alzheimer's disease. Her follow-up Take This Waltz, an original screenplay titled after a Leonard Cohen song, also upends the traditional narrative logic of romantic movies.

    This tale of an unhappily married woman (Michelle Williams) who feels trapped in a loving but routine marriage and allows herself to be seduced by a neighbour out of fear of being stuck in a rut refuses all of the predictable, self-evident plotting such films usually follow. Instead, Ms. Polley introduces a number of spiky, confrontational elements to question the conventional notions of love and happiness. Margot is a pretty normal woman, one who is undoubtedly in love with her cookbook-writing husband Lou (Seth Rogen), but who feels under-appreciated by him while deathly afraid of committing and of making the wrong choice - so much so that her every decision is blocked and paralysed by her fear of being unfair, either to herself or to others. Hence her affair with handsome but unpredictable neighbour Daniel (Luke Kirby) is a challenge, and one she is not entirely sure she will be able to overcome; not only does she want, she also needs to let go and be less wound-up, but she's almost physically unable to do so, resulting in her sense of being merely a passive observer as things happen in her own life she is unable to have proper control of.

     Ms. Williams, who has become something of an expert in meaty, challenging roles of women, proves again how much she thrives in these less obvious roles, and Ms. Polley knows exactly how to draw the best out of her. But if there is one serious problem in Take This Waltz, it's the sense that Ms. Polley takes far too long to get to her central point, by allowing events in the first two thirds of the film to weave and meander out of focus. That is, to be sure, part and parcel of her strategy, in order to make the events of the third act all the more heartfelt and emotional. Key to this is the absolutely magnificent scene where Margot and Daniel enjoy a fairground ride, where the contrast between the elation and release of the ride and the brutal comedown once it ends abruptly is made thrillingly exciting.

     That determination in avoiding the obvious makes up for the occasional sophomore stumbles of Take This Waltz, mostly symbolised by the over-reliance on pop songs to make overly obvious that which self-evidently does not need it (with the added bonus of diminishing the impact of Jonathan Goldsmith's sensitive score). Regardless, it's a step up from the honest but occasionally overly cloying melodrama of Away from Her and proof that here is a director worth following.

Cast: Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Luke Kirby, Sarah Silverman
Director and writer: Sarah Polley
Cinematography: Luc Montpellier (colour)
Music: Jonathan Goldsmith
Designer: Matthew Davies
Costumes: Lea Carlson
Editor: Christopher Donaldson
Producers: Sarah Cavan, Ms. Polley (Joe's Daughter and Mongrel Media, in association with TF1 Droits Audiovisuels, The Movie Network, Movie Central, Super Écran and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)
Canada/France, 2011, 116 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, January 26th 2013


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