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Take This Waltz - review

Scenes from a marriage: Michelle Williams saves this film from tweeness, writes Ryan Gilbey.

Take This Waltz is the second film to be written and directed by the actor Sarah Polley. Like her first, Away From Her, it concerns the intangible, cancerous mysteries that can colonise a marriage’s immune system. The new picture has so much kookiness, so many overwritten lines and visual gimmicks, not to mention a winsome soundtrack that makes you feel you’re being drilled in the head with a candy cane, that it should be intolerable – but like the fitful, possibly manic-depressive Margot (Michelle Williams), there are two sides to the movie. Among the irritating and the obvious lies the original, even the revelatory. In this, it resembles nothing so much as a Canadian Mike Leigh film.

Margot lives in Toronto with Lou (Seth Rogen). They have been married for five years and haven’t yet lost their playfulness. She plucks at his mouth while he’s making a business call; they exchange violent sentiments in cutie-pie voices like the couple in Punch-Drunk Love. You say adorable, I say grounds for divorce. But mutual tweeness is not the problem. An air of frustration hangs in the air along with the aroma of cooking. Lou is writing a book of recipes that incorporate chicken in some way. The smell is nice, Margot insists, but the mess afterwards is disgusting. Plus, you know, it’s always chicken. A girl can pine for some red meat.

Enter Daniel (Luke Kirby), who is quite the rack of ribs. He is seated next to Margot on a plane; they twinkle together in that young-and-pretty-in-an-indie-movie way. Returning to Toronto and heading to their respective homes, they discover with comical incredulity, beautifully sustained, that they live not only in the same street but directly opposite one another. The question hanging over the rest of the film is how long they will be able to resist temptation. The answer is: quite some time. Polley knows that consummation isn’t the issue for Margot; the die is already cast, the seed is sown. As for Lou, his goose is cooked, which at least makes a change from chicken.

The cinematographer Luc Montpellier has bathed the entire film in a hot, radiant glow that heightens Matthew Davies’s production design – the glossy walls, the ripe produce, the rows of bohemian stalls selling brightly patterned fabrics. This chimes with Margot’s desperately chirpy perspective, which she uses to fight her unhappiness. Bright-faced and golden-haired, she is accompanied by a personal shaft of sunlight; her wardrobe choices revolve around dressing as the Chelsea Flower Show. The miracle of Williams’s performance lies in her ability to emphasise the sharp edges beneath Margot’s Care Bear exterior, the selfishness and torment mixed up in her glee. Williams is sometimes all that separates Take This Waltz from Amélie.

It’s touch-and-go at times. Any passengers overhearing Daniel’s and Margot’s first encounter could have bailed out at 30,000 feet without being accused of overreacting. “I don’t like being in between things,” Margot tells him. “I’m afraid of being afraid.” This isn’t dialogue: it’s potted characterisation. Late in the film, Margot’s sister-in-law, Geraldine (Sarah Silverman), challenges her on the cause of her melancholia: “Life has a gap in it. It just does. You don’t go crazy trying to fill it.” This is all obscurely insulting to the actors, who are good enough to convey such sentiments without self-help slogans, and the audience, which might prefer screenplays that aren’t mission statements in disguise.

Yet there is enough of the authentic or off-kilter to keep the film alive and fascinating. Polley makes some intriguingly odd moves, such as giving pride of place to the Buggles 1979 hit “Video Killed the Radio Star” while slightly skimming over the Leonard Cohen number that lends the film its title. (It’s used during a rather obvious time-lapse sequence that has nothing on Hugh Grant’s stroll through the passing seasons in Notting Hill.) And even if there were little else in the film of value, it would be possible to admire the sequence in which Lou, sitting on the porch at night serenaded by a chorus of chirruping crickets, gazes through the kitchen window at Margot – her lips mouthing the words to a song he cannot hear, her head moving to a rhythm that is inaccessible to him and likely always will be.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality

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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.