Two familiar female screen archetypes are the clever-yet-uptight brunette and the flighty-yet-vulnerable blonde – and I bet that your sympathies lean heavily towards one more than the other. Do you favour Elizabeth Bennett or Emma Woodhouse (or Cher in Clueless if you’d rather)? A more modern pairing would be the neurotic Liz Lemon and diva Jenna Maroney in 30 Rock. Better yet, did you ever watch Dawson’s Creek’s in the late ‘90s? If you were Dawson, would you pick Joey (Katie Holmes) or Jen (Michelle Williams)?
Well, I rooted for Joey. And if you think similarly, you might struggle a bit with this film. Take This Waltz, starring Michelle Williams, and written and directed by Sarah Polley, is very blonde. It’s a bit like watching a spinoff of Dawson’s Creek starring Jen, fast forwarded 10 years, and on HBO.
In Take This Waltz, Margot (Michelle Williams), a married 28-year-old, has a chance encounter with a frustrating-but-attractive man (Luke Kirby) who just happens to live across the street. She’s a bit restless and impetuous, while her unassuming husband (Seth Rogan) is quite comfortable with their sickeningly adorable relationship. Who, we wonder, will she choose in the end?
The camera is sympathetic to Margot, catching her in golden light and framing her with fetish-y close ups. Sadly, it feels more like watching an uber-girly Michelle Williams rather than a new character, because no names are mentioned in the first quarter of the film. I ended up associating the nameless characters with their actors’ past roles, instead of getting engrossed in the film’s world.
Luckily, the film is well-cast. Williams, who usually tends toward playing characters with darker troubles than this, is charmingly naive. Rogan, in a rare dramatic role, is endearing, though his quips pack a much softer punch in this context. The relatively unknown Kirby fits as the mysterious love interest, and his penetrating stares manage to project more longing than creepiness. But the real delight is Sarah Silverman as Margot’s spirited sister-in-law Geri. She plays a recovering alcoholic, which is perfect for her brand of dark humour laced with vulnerability. It’s a relief when she’s onscreen to cut through the cuteness that pervades the film.
Unfortunately, the film’s flighty tone definitely results in some head-askance moments. It’s consciously quirky, tries too hard, and the rhythm is sometimes forced. The tonal shifts in several scenes repeat the same problematic pattern; they start saccharine until you can’t take any more, abruptly turn darkly humorous, then try to end on a genuine note. Hence the Dawson’s Creek comparison – such moments resonate on more of a TV-movie level.
Aside from these issues, Take this Waltz is largely beguiling. It’s smartly structured, giving the characters just the right amount of weight. It also manages to deal satisfyingly and honestly with the moral complications that infidelity arouses. Plus it looks fantastic, showcasing a vibrant Toronto in the summertime – the bright colours and hazy light suit the unabashedly sweet tone of the film. It achieves several striking contrasts between scenes to shift textures; the nighttime pool scene and the fairground rides are particularly atmospheric. And the fitting soundtrack is populated by acoustic guitars, xylophones and flutes to keep the mood wistful.
So should you see it? It may depend on who you’re watching it with. When I saw it, the gender divide in the room was palpable; the lead female’s cutesy nature elicited exasperated sighs and miserable cringing from several men in the audience, who may have expected it to be more along the lines of Blue Valentine. And to be fair, at several points I felt similar – but my instinctive female solidarity, plus memories of chats with girlfriends, kept me circumspect. This kind of girl definitely exists, like her or not – it wouldn’t be fair to be dismissive of the film based on its blonde tone. Ultimately, I think this film has merit, presenting an enjoyable, decidedly feminine perspective of a woman’s insecurities and fantasies. But give it a watch and decide for yourself – with someone of the opposite sex, if you’re feeling bold.
Take This Waltz is in cinemas now. Contributor Cathy Landicho can be followed on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur