Early in "Take This Waltz," there is an unintentionally awkward close-up of Michelle Williams doing a double take. The only reason it sticks out is because almost everything else in the movie is right-on.
Like the transcendent "Away From Her," Sarah Polley's previous film as a writer/director, "Take This Waltz" displays her knack for capturing the textures of a relationship: the rules a couple live by, the mercurial shifts in mood we indulge only with someone we know well, the way a single day can encompass a spectrum of feelings, from irritation to tolerance to love.
"Take This Waltz" takes place in Toronto, and all three of its main characters have the sort of jobs you can afford only if you live in a place with nationalized health care: Margot (Michelle Williams) writes occasional travel stories; her husband, Lou (Seth Rogen in a noncomic role), tests recipes for a cookbook; and Daniel (Luke Kirby), the handsome stranger Margot meets on a trip, is an artist/rickshaw driver.
The opening image of "Take This Waltz" shows an unhappy Margot making blueberry muffins. Her discontent hangs over the movie. On the surface, she and Lou seem fine, but their little couple-love games feel forced, and she's so quick to anger it soon becomes clear they're in a rough patch. Whether it's a temporary one or whether they have outgrown each other is a key issue in "Take This Waltz," most of which is taken up with Margot wondering whether she will have an affair with Daniel.
The deep humanity of "Away From Her" remains in "Take This Waltz." Many moviegoers are going to be annoyed at Margot, who seems constitutionally discontented. But Williams' nuanced performance -- she is on-screen for almost every minute of the film -- is so strong that we understand her restlessness, even if we don't support it. So deeply does "Take This Waltz" burrow into her claustrophobic point of view, with even the events that happen to other people included only because of their impact on Margot, it almost seems these events couldn't play out any other way.
To her humanism, Polley has added riskier filmmaking, and it pays off. There's a stunning scene set on a whirling carousel in darkness with "Video Killed the Radio Star" blaring in the background that is a perfect metaphor for the sense of abandon Margot seeks. And there's a time-lapse sequence that encapsulates one couple's doomed relationship into just a couple of minutes.
Williams specializes in these disconnected characters -- in "Wendy and Lucy," in "My Week With Marilyn," in "Meek's Cutoff" -- and Margo, who ends the movie back on that disorienting carousel, is one of her best.
Movie critic Chris Hewitt can be reached at 651-228-5552. Follow him on twitter.com/ChrisHMovie .
"TAKE THIS WALTZ"
Directed by: Sarah Polley
Starring: Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Luke Kirby, Sarah Silverman
Rated: R, for full-frontal (nonsexual) nudity and language
Should you go? Yes. Margot's behavior is exasperating, but Williams helps us understand it. ***-1/2
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