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Sarah Polley traces another triangle

The writer-director of Away From Her explores another troubled marriage with Take This Waltz

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Sarah Polley has been acting in movies and TV shows since she was four years old: the Toronto native made her screen acting debut in the Disney feature One Magic Christmas (1985), and her role in the CBC series Road to Avonlea made her a star in Canada at age 11. By the time her screenplay for Away From Her (2006) was nominated for an Oscar, Polley had been in the movie business for nearly a quarter century, though she was still only 28. Polley's relative youth was what made Away From Her so impressive; adapted from a short story by Alice Munro, it told the heartrending tale of a long-married couple pondering their fidelity to each other as the wife, her memory eaten away by early-onset Alzheimer's disease, resolves to move into a nursing home. How could anyone in her late 20s, critics wondered, so persuasively depict a marriage of 44 years?

Take This Waltz—whose July 6 release date, we learned on deadline, has been moved back to July 13—also chronicles the painful unraveling of a marriage, though in Polley's own screenplay the characters are about her age and have been wed only five years. Margot (Michelle Williams) lives more or less contentedly with Lou (Seth Rogen), but during a business trip she strikes up an electric flirtation with the lanky, handsome Daniel (Luke Kirby), then learns to her dismay that he lives right across the street. Try as she might, Margot can't stay away from Daniel, and their growing passion for each other eventually ruptures the marriage. There are numerous similarities between this new film and the previous one, which also involves a love triangle with the wife at the apex. But the two movies differ in one crucial respect: the spouses in Away From Her wrestle with events from the past, whereas the woman at the center of Take This Waltz is tortured by the choice between two possible futures.

Unfortunately for Polley, Take This Waltz is a good film serving mainly to remind us that Away From Her is a great one. As the latter movie opens, Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie in an Oscar-nominated performance) are living companionably in the rural home they've shared for the past 20 years, since he retired from his job as a university professor. Theirs is a visibly lived-in relationship, comfortable as an old jacket, but Fiona's lapses of memory have grown so severe—as they're washing the dinner dishes, she takes a frying pan and absently sticks it in the freezer—that neither of them can overlook the situation any longer. Grant can't bear to think of her leaving, yet Fiona is a realist and knows what needs to be done. As she checks into the nursing home, Grant clings to her, ignoring the efforts of staffers to separate them, until Fiona takes him aside and tells him, "I'd like you to go, because I need to stay here, and if you make it hard for me, I might cry so hard I'll never stop."

The pain of seeing a spouse drift away and the store of common memory fade has made Alzheimer's a popular subject for tearjerkers, some moving (Iris), some merely sappy (The Notebook). Away From Her may be the toughest of them all, though, because it dares to suggest those memories may not be so sweet. As the story progresses, Polley reveals that earlier in the marriage Grant cheated on Fiona with a series of students, including one who became the subject of a full-blown affair. When Grant returns to the nursing home after a month-long enforced separation, he discovers to his anguish that Fiona barely remembers him anymore and has formed a romantic attachment with another man in the nursing home who similarly suffers from dementia. Grant's suffering is only compounded by the nagging suspicion that Fiona, whether consciously or subconscously, is finally getting even with him.

Oddly, Polley has more luck dramatizing a long marriage between people in their early 60s than dramatizing a short marriage between people in their late 20s. I'm a big fan of comedic performers doing drama, and Take This Waltz features two of the more inspired talents around, Rogen and Sarah Silverman as his alcoholic sister, Geraldine. But the handful of improv-style scenes between Rogen and Michelle Williams, which are critical to the story, don't quite come off. Lying in bed or bonding in other intimate situations, the husband and wife riff on various ideas much as Rogen and Paul Rudd, in Judd Apatow's The 40-Year-Old Virgin, spin out a series of one-liners in response to the question "You know how I know you're gay?" The problem is that Williams, despite her soulful allure, doesn't really excel at this kind of performing, and as a result it's hard to say whether these scenes are supposed to indicate the marriage's intimacy or its superficiality.

The failure of these scenes seems ironic given that one of the more powerful sequences, late in the movie, is an apparently improvised extended take in which Lou, who's finally figured out what's going on between Margot and Daniel, confronts his wife. Polley seems to have guided her actors through this excruciating encounter, with Rogen in front of the camera and Williams behind it, and cut together the highlights of his performance as the spouses work through their endless and agonizing heart-to-heart talk. Lou fights for words; he sighs; he rubs his reddened face; he struggles for words. "I thought you were gonna be there when I died," he admits. He holds his head in his hands and weeps; he laughs in dismay; he rages at her, "Don't say that! What the fuck does that mean?" (We'll never know, because her remark isn't included.) "You're so beautiful," he observes. "I feel like I never deserved you." I'm guessing some of these lines were in the script, but in any case it's the most humble and sincere performance this professional wiseass has ever delivered.

Whether these improvised scenes pay off or not, they all feed into Polley's notion that life is filled with staggering potentialities, that a situation can play out one way or another to the overwhelming joy or grief of those involved. When Margot first meets Daniel, sitting beside him on an airplane flight from Nova Scotia back to Toronto, where they live, she confesses that she suffers from a fear of airports. "I'm afraid of connections," she explains. "In airports. Getting from one plane to another. The running, the rushing, the not knowing, trying to figure it out. Wondering if I'm going to make it. . . . I'm afraid of wondering if I'll miss it. I don't like being in between things. I'm afraid of being afraid." Her neurosis places her at the opposite extreme from Grant and Fiona: they have to reckon with the consequences of Grant's actions, while Margot agonizes over the possible consequences of actions not taken.

This demarcation between what is and what might be plays out most powerfully near the movie's midpoint, when Margot and Daniel commiserate in a bar over a pair of martinis. "I want to know what you'd do to me," Margot asks, and the question so startles both of them that she adds, "Wow . . . I just said that." Taking up her dare, Daniel launches into a precisely detailed imagining of their first sexual encounter, from its delicate beginnings to its violent climax; his monologue goes on and on, and Margot is overwhelmed, growing more feverish with each sentence. When Harry Met Sally notwithstanding, it could be the most erotic sex scene ever committed to film in which nothing actually happens. By the end of it, they're so worked up they can't even drink their martinis, and leave them on the table untouched. Back at Daniel's apartment, Margot invites herself in and tucks herself between the sheets of his bed, but even then their vision goes unconsummated when Margot, wracked with guilt, dissolves into tears and Daniel sends her home.

Take This Waltz may not stack up to Away From Her, but then Polley is only 33 and still has a long career ahead of her. She's already proved that, in addition to being able to tell a story, she knows the power of a single image. Away From Her is bookended by shots of Grant and Fiona cross-country skiing, and their parallel tracks stretch off into the distance, recording a long journey in which their paths, no matter how close, have never quite crossed. Near the beginning of Take This Waltz, Margot idles by the sea in Nova Scotia, studying a lighthouse off in the distance, and a picture postcard of the same lighthouse figures prominently when she and Daniel agree to meet there in 30 years for a single kiss. By then, they'll be almost as old as Grant and Fiona, and Margot will know whether she's made the right decision or wasted her life on the wrong man. One couple looks forward, the other back, but in both movies the years are measured in regret.

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