Sarah Polley’s first feature film as a director, Away from Her (2007) was an extraordinary work, a startling love story but also a brilliant character study about a couple over sixty dealing with Alzheimer’s disease. Julie Christie gave the performance of her career as Fiona, a proud woman descending into the nightmare of the disease, with Canadian icon Gordon Pinsent as her husband, Grant, a former college professor who adores his wife but was not above a dalliance with a student years before. Retired, they spend their time in their home, journeying out into the winter to cross-country ski, or enjoy the weather and beautiful landscapes. When the impact of the disease begins to wear on Fiona, making her everyday life difficult, she decides to go into a facility where she can receive the proper care, and not be a burden to her husband. Grant is opposed, believing he can care for his wife, but she is adamant, and will not listen to him. What really hurts Grant is the fact that once she is in the place, they cannot have contact for thirty days. Once there she seems to forget him, and connects with another patient, who needs her. The picture is about love, and how much one will do if they truly love another, how far will we go for love? Sacrifice is so much a part of any relationship and what Grant is willing to sacrifice for Fiona was a blinding reminder of what we have within ourselves to do for another person.
The film earned rave reviews, won several critics awards around North America, and earned Polley, a formidable actress the Canadian Genie Award as Best Director, in fact, the film swept the Genie Awards, earning awards as Best Film, Actor, Actress, and the aforementioned prizes for Polley.
The tiny blonde actress is among the most gifted actresses in movies today, with her stunning performance in Atom Egoyan’s haunting The Sweet Hereafter (1997) launching her career as a serious dramatic actress. Never really wanting to be a star Polley has often turned down parts that would have made her one, in favor of working with people she admires. Camerone Crowe wrote the role of Penny Lane in Almost Famous (1999) for Polley, but when given the chance to work with Sean Penn and Kathryn Bigelow on the little seen The Weight of Water (1999) she withdrew from Almost Famous (1999) allowing Kate Hudson to take the role and be Oscar nominated. None of that matters to Polley, fame, stardom, none of it really matters to her. Polley has always wanted to direct, and after a couple of short films, she adapted Alice Munro’s short story into this exceptional film that should have earned Oscars nod for Best Film and for Best Director. Away from Her (2007) earned nominations for Julie Christie as Best Actress, and for Polley for her screenplay adaptation. Filled with such subtle power, wisdom, and gentle humor, Away from Her (2007) touched the hearts of all who had the chance to experience the film, and in doing recognize our own fears about aging, and recognizing that sometimes anothers’ comfort is more important than whatever anguish we might be feeling.
Last year at TIFF I anxiously sat in my seat awaiting the start of Polley’s second feature film Take This Waltz with the daring actress Michelle Williams, and Seth Rogen, a somewhat odd choice for this film in that he has rarely stepped into drama.
I emerged from the screening two hours later disappointed with what I had seen, appreciating the performances within the film, but angered that we had not really found out more about the failing relationship of the two leads.
The story is rather simple. Margot (Williams), married to Lou (Rogen), writes travel pieces about Canada, while her husband works on another cookbook, this one about the many diverse ways to prepare chicken. On one of her jobs she encounters Daniel (Luke Kirby) and am immediate attraction is evident. It turns out that they live ridiculously close to one another in Toronto, and they begin spending time together, something she does not tell her husband, and attempt to restrain themselves from escalating their relationship. The sweltering heat of the city drives them often to a pool, where they dance a gentle give and take, each waiting for the other to make the move, each wondering what is at risk.
Where I struggled with the film was the fact we learn little about the relationship between the husband and wife. They seem alright with one another (nothing more), playing silly word games, but their sex is boring (when they bother to have any) and they talk more at parties with friends than they do one another. Their relationship felt like that of a much older couple, with little excitement left. To an extent we see what drives her to look at this other man, we gain an understanding I suppose of why she would drift out of the marriage. He may be better looking than Rogen (I don’t know), he may be more interesting, but the fact she falls so fast and so hard tells me the relationship was doomed. Why does she not talk to her husband? And admittedly this is a personal thing with me, honesty in a relationship is paramount. I have a good friend who knew something was wrong in his marriage and actually begged his wife to tell him what it was, and eventually he found out she was cheating on him with another man. Why not tell him? Why be cruel? And admittedly, I have been on the receiving end of such a happening in an early relationship many years ago. My lady went on a cruise she had won through her company and when she returned I knew something was very wrong. Turns out she had, in two days fell in love with a dude who worked on the ship and we were done because I could not forgive that. Not until I met Sherri did I learn to trust women again, and have total honesty in a relationship. Watching the film, I felt sorry for the couple, sorry that their lust for one another was gone, sorry that they could not talk, sorry that there was going to be pain.
Thus I had very little sympathy for Margot in the film and in fact disliked her a little by the end of the film. You know when you are doing something wrong, you know in your heart and head that an action is not the right thing to be doing, yet she keeps on meeting Daniel? Sure maybe they are destined to be together, who knows, but at least have the decency to tell your husband. While walking to the pool or the cafe or the bar, something in her head should have told her she was doing something unkind and yet she continued to do it. We see her being very chilly with him, we see him offer affection and she refuse it, just as we see her struggling to get his attention from his constant cooking. So yes, the relationship is in trouble, but talk to each other, and do not allow his dignity to be ruined. How would she have felt if it was he with the attraction to another?
Williams as always is superb, bringing an edge to Margot that allows her character to be just a tad unlikable. She is without question one of the finest actresses working in movies today, with her recent performances in Blue Valentine (2010) and My Week with Marilyn (2011) as evidence of her stunning gifts as an actress. She is clearly in pain in the film, and her choice is admittedly difficult, but I struggled with her deliberate cruelty in her actions with Daniel without telling Lou. There has been early Oscar talk for her, but I cannot see it coming for this, because the depth of her work, while strong, does not match what she has previously done and been nominated for.
Rogen is excellent as Lou, an easy-going, eager to please writer, who appears to love his wife, appears to want to make her happy yet is unable to do so. There is an easy comfort between them, we believe they are together, we believe they are in love, or once were, which makes what happens all the more difficult to watch.
As Daniel, the other man, Luke Kirby is very good, and it seems a fairly decent man, if men who hang out with other mens’ wives can be so. He tells her from the beginning that it will have to be her who moves first, it will have to be she that initiates whatever is to happen because she is married and he will not do that. However looking deeper, the very fact he says such a thing tells me he expects something will happen, and he is prepared to do that to another guy.
Both actors offer brave performances in a film where Polley carefully attempts to offer no villain, in which she is stating that sometimes this sort of thing happens. Having been through a divorce, a new marriage, I wonder how much of the original story was autobiographical? The director creates one magical moment that was breathtaking in its raw beauty. We see the younger girls showering after their swim, full nudity, openly discussing what is happening in their lives, and across the way is a group of older women, past sixty and seventy also showering, also fully nude, unashamed of their bodies, as they should be. They listen to the younger girls, knowingly, and seem to be a mirror image of what the young ones will become. The older ladies are aware that relationships, just like bodies fail, they are aware that, really nothing lasts forever, but I will bet their wisdom also has taught them that there is no reason to intentionally wound another person. Margot should leave if she wants out, telling him why, leaving him hurt, but just hurt, not the emotional devastation she is going to cause.