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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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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide