Best Actress, Michelle Williams in 'Take This Waltz'

Austin Dale

While everyone else is tripping on Kathryn Bigelow's art-house-cum-action acid, I was content to take a downer and mellow out. And then I looked at Michelle Williams and woke up.

Take This Waltz

Director: Sarah Polley
Cast: Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Luke Kirby, Sarah Silverman
Rated: R
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Year: 2011
US date: 2012-06-29 (Limited release)
UK date: 2012-08-17 (General release)

I love the Best Actress race, even though in recent years, it has been a relatively tame and predictable category. What was our last honest-to-God surprise? Keisha Castle-Hughes, the New Zealand child actress who won over the Academy with her devastating performance in Whale Rider? Maybe Laura Linney for The Savages? For the most part, the five women who get nominated are recognizable, beloved stars rolling on high-budget campaigns and hit films. There's no other way to explain Sandra Bullock winning.

This year, the race is a bit different. It's all about the work this time. Emmanuelle Riva, the French film legend who audiences definitely don't know, for her work in Michael Haneke's Amour and Quvenzhane Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild, a schoolgirl from the Delta with wise-eyed charisma, are frontrunners. Difficult, little-seen films like The Deep Blue Sea and Rust and Bone are suddenly in the discussion. Even though, at the end of the day, the race comes down to two ingenue bombshells, I think we can all be thrilled that nominees will (hopefully) eventually span an spectrum that will include both an octogenarian and a toddler. If that's not diversity, I don't know what is.

This week, exhausted from Oscar talk, I went onto Netflix for a bit of an escape, and I found myself watching Sarah Polley's character study Take This Waltz. I had seen it on the big screen earlier this year, and I hoped its its small emotions and romantic subtleties might come across better on my Macbook. While everyone else is tripping on Kathryn Bigelow's art-house-cum-action acid, I was content to take a downer and mellow out. And then I looked at Michelle Williams and woke up.

Where has Michelle Williams been in the Oscar race this year? She's a perennial now: A respected example of towering excellence who follows her heart between studio prestige pictures and Kelly Reichardt's minimalist masterpieces. Last year, she came damn close to gold again with the chintzy My Week With Marilyn. This year, she gave one of her most compelling performances yet in Take This Waltz, and she's hanging out with Naomi Watts in Oscar blog exile. Did no one see this film?

Sarah Polley wrote a beautiful romantic comedy in which romance takes its time, without ever hitting extremes or getting boring. There is no happy ending, and our heroine never falls down a flight of stairs. The humor comes from true-to-life ironies, and the romance comes from - well, I don't quite know where. And neither, I would argue, does Michelle Williams. She just gives herself to this spare and intelligent screenplay, imbuing Polley's introspective dialogue ("I just don't like... uncertainty...") with spirited warmth.

I don't want to spoil the story, because you probably haven't seen it, but it doesn't really matter. Take This Waltz is loose and unstructured, and it belongs entirely to its characters. The actors surrounding Williams get it right most of the time, but it's hard to compete with this film's central performance. The camera loves Michelle Williams, but her cover-of-Vogue beauty is beside the point. Watching Michelle Williams reinvent herself is half the fun. The other half is watching her forget herself entirely and wholly disappear into a character whose decisions, in anyone else's hands, might make no sense.

This is truly deserving work. I have no doubt that Michelle Williams will keep getting awards recognition, but credit is due. Take This Waltz has one of this year's best movie-star performances, and if you love the Best Actress category, you're remiss in your duties if you missed it.

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