Photograph by Michael Gibson
Tabling memories: Fiona (Julie Christie) tries to keep in touch with her husband, Grant (Gordon Pinsent), in 'Away From Her.'
Sarah Polley's 'Away From Her' puts character over melodrama
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
AT ITS MOST basic level, Away From Her is a disease-of-the-week flick that stares uncomfortably into the face of Alzheimer's disease and its heartbreaking affect on everyone who comes into contact with it. But on a higher level, this is a graceful, astonishingly brave film from actress Sarah Polley (The Sweet Hereafter, Dawn of the Dead), making her directorial debut. Moreover, it's a thankless work that will face an uphill battle followed by almost certain oblivion. Indeed, Away From Her sounds upsetting, and it does throw unpleasant human mortality right in our faces, but the film is far from unwatchable. In fact, Polley (who is only 28) does the exact opposite of the typical disease-of-the-week offering by focusing first on characters, story, mood and rhythm, bringing up the disease only insofar as it affects these elements. (The typical movie flaunts the disease first and foremost, like a noble flag or a badge of honor.)
Polley adapts her movie from "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," a 1999 short story by the great Canadian writer Alice Munro, and Polley clearly gets inside that story, burrowing into Munro's touchingly brutal world. It's a meeting of two like minds, and anything that Polley switches or adds feels as if it comes with the Munro stamp of approval. (It's the opposite of this week's disappointing Jindabyne, which adapts a Raymond Carver story and adds several ridiculous outside elements to help "visualize" the story, but ultimately betrays it.) If that's not enough, Polley tells her story entirely through the point of view of two elderly people, which is not exactly the formula for box-office gold. Living in her grandparents' old house in rural, snowy Ontario, Fiona (Julie Christie) has begun to forget little things, and her husband, retired professor Grant (Gordon Pinsent), isn't sure how to take this. Eventually, it is decided that she'll move into a rest home, with the thought that it's only a temporary measure. Unfortunately, this home has a policy forbidding any visitors during the first 30 days. When Grant finally turns up, Fiona has struck up a strong and tender bond with another patient, Aubrey (Michael Murphy), and doesn't seem to remember Grant.
Though this is a tough situation for Grant, Polley restrains her film from histrionics or despair. Instead Grant attempts to deal with his problem quietly, logically, talking with a helpful nurse (Kristen Thomson, in an impressively low-key performance) and Aubrey's wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis). The film's main fault is that when Grant remembers their past together Polley shows scratchy "flashbacks" (either shot on or doctored to look like old 8 mm footage) with other actors playing the young couple. That tactic distracts, especially given that the young Christie was practically unrivaled for sheer beauty.
Overall, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to compare Away From Her to the work of the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, who specialized in family dramas with a deep, cleansing, almost spiritual touch. In that, Polley is less interested in how many hankies her film rates than she is in touching the human soul and finding it damaged, yet still beautiful.
Away From Her (PG-13; 110 min.), directed and written by Sarah Polley, based on a story by Alice Munro), photographed by Luc Montpellier and starring Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent and Michael Murphy, opens May 11 at selected theaters.
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