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Sarah Polley's 2007 directorial debut, Away from Her, was one of the year's unqualified successes. The Canadian actress, best known either for playing Ramona or a secretive survivor in The Sweet Hereafter, evaded the pitfalls of adapting Alice Munro's gorgeous prose into an issue-oriented Alzheimer's story and instead created a harrowing look at the fissures of marriage through sickness and through health.
Polley also managed to corral two of the decade's great performances from her lead actors, Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent. She's blessed with a terrifically talented cast in her sophomore outing, take thus waltz, a promising follow-up that ultimately falls prey to the pitfalls of art house pretension.
We see these precious flickers almost as soon as writer Margot (Michelle Williams) meets Daniel (Luke Kirby), a fellow writer also on assignment in Nova Scotia. On the same return flight to Toronto, Margot orders milk as her beverage (a theatricality even the film calls itself out on) and discloses a crippling fear of connections that forces her to be wheeled from door to door at airports (a transparent device that the film lets slide). Daniel is a smart guy who clicks with Margot, who has the misfortune of already being married, which then gives Daniel the misfortune of learning that he actually lives across the street from the couple.
Whatever Waltz's faults, its cast is not one of them. Williams continues her streak of perceptive performances; Margot's curiosity is piqued by Daniel, and the way in which she lets Daniel awaken dormant parts of her id makes total sense. Kirby, meanwhile, offers a sensual turn in which Daniel is equally aggressive and agreeable in all the right places. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s also not a passive young guy either. In one scene in which he and Margot engage in a conversation of hypotheticals, Kirby delivers a stunningly arresting monologue that justifies everything Margot senses in him over her husband. It’s a breakout role in what will likely be one of the year's sharpest performances.
Polley also manages to carve out smart performances from her comedic cast members. Roger displays an impressive amount of restraint and charm, embodying the complacency marriage can breed through no one's fault. And Sarah Silverman is saddled with a predictable role -- like a gun that, introduced in the first act, must go off in the last, so too must a recovering alcoholic inevitably fall off the wagon -- she sure punctures it with plenty of humane insight.
But while Polley demonstrates plenty of keen control, including stylistic visual and musical choices (cinematographer Luc Montpellier and production designer Matthew Davies opt for rich, romantic hues), in its later stages Waltz veers from the emotionally incisive to the aloof and elliptical. This is a frustrating shift that does a great disservice to its characters and the committed actors so nimbly charting their path. It's as if Polley scared herself away from linear storytelling so as to impress a different (maybe younger? Hipper?) audience. And suddenly a movie that lingered in messy questions with difficult answers – what would happen if I chose this path versus that one? who would get hurt? – arrives at some definitive answers instead of ruminating in the hypotheticals. Like many a relationship, Waltz is far more rewarding when it’s dancing in the glow of something new than it is when it has finally revealed its true self.