Sarah Polley first captured my attention 15 years ago in Atom Egoyan’s searing melodrama, The Sweet Hereafter. I was first captivated by the nuance she brought to the role of a paralyzed teenager; then I was intrigued as I followed her career, which included small films like My Life Without Me, and well regarded ones like Doug Liman’s Go, in which she shared lead billing with a variety of up and comers including Katie Holmes. It seemed that Polley was less interested in the path toward stardom than she was in testing her mettle.
Polley’s directorial career has a similar lean. Her first major film, Away From Her, premiered in 2006 to substantially positive reviews, and her new film, Take This Waltz, is ambitious and often riveting. Her pacing and textures owe a significant debt to Egoyan’s Andante approach, but she brings an actor’s eye toward framing shots. Perhaps that’s why she’s able to attract such great talent so early into her career behind the camera. Her first film featured Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie. The new one stars Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Luke Kirby and Sarah Silverman.
Polley also wrote the script for Take This Waltz, which finds new angles on the old, woman-caught- between-two-men story. Just as Polley’s women tend to eschew glamor without being frumpy, her men are emotionally articulate and restrained without seeming weak. These character traits embolden Polley to take risks with the script that don’t always work, but her zeal to portray the messy side of relationship security cuts her some slack. Her films often not only comment on that subject via the narrative but in its references. For instance, the new movie relies heavily on the trope of music video simplicity in its quotes of The Buggles “Video Killed the Radio Star,” and it’s narrative invites comparison’s to Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise.”
Both of Polley’s films center on infidelity, but they are less about women acting badly than gentle questions about the narrowness of choices and whether fidelity as we know it is compatible with life today. In some ways the path of Polley’s characters parallel her own idiosyncratic career.
Martin Johnson used to write about music and film for a living; now he writes about them because it makes him feel a little more alive. His work is still occasionally published in the Wall Street Journal.