Away from Her
Sarah Polley (Short Story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro)
Gordon Pinsent, Julie Christie, Olympia Dukakis, Stacey LaBerge, Deanna Dezmari, Clare Coulter, Thomas Hauff, Alberta Watson
An achingly tender portrait of a man who has to see his wife descend into the forgetful oblivion of Alzheimer’s, Away from Her is the marvelous directorial debut of a young Canadian actress with whom most filmgoers may be unfamiliar.
Grant Anderson (Gordon Pinsent) doesn’t want to admit that his wife is slipping away from him. When her forgetful condition becomes too much for him to handle alone, Fiona (Julie Christie) convinces him that a nursing home might be for the best. After he reluctantly relinquishes his perpetual grip on her, she drifts farther and faster than he’s prepared to accept.
Away from Her isn’t your typical drama. It doesn’t dwell in abundant sentiment and never becomes a roller coaster. Instead, thanks to the clever and deft hands of Sarah Polley, the film exists and moves from beginning to end, telling a heart-wrenching story that doesn’t have to be bold or exuberant to get its point across.
Much of the early parts of the film explore Fiona’s insistence that Grant forget her, something he is obviously unable to do. Her insistence suggests she has always had stubborn streak, something Grant seems to realize. Her words, while never directly threatening, suggest that perhaps she might even act as if she had forgotten him just so he would get over her a little more easily and quickly.
However, by the film’s close, her eyes have taken on a childlike innocence, one of full knowledge, but an absence. Everything that leads up to this point suggests that she has forgotten him even unintentionally. The success of the character is in Christie’s brilliantly subdued performance. Each role requires different a different style of acting. Some actresses are capable of displaying that style, others cannot. Christie nails it.
Through her performance, we feel as if we are slowly losing someone we’ve known our entire lives. That’s a difficult feat to accomplish, but Christie handles it like the pro she is.
Although more attention has been paid to Christie’s performance in the film, Pinsent quietly holds his own, possibly even topping the Darling actress. Pinsent presents Grant with so much dignified sympathy that the audience immediately identifies him. He is, after all, losing the love of his life to a disease which none can control. Even when he seeks comfort in the arms of another woman, it only cements his feelings of adoration for his wife.
Pinsent is quietly powerful. If not for his able skills, we might not even understand the full emotional impact of the story. It’s a role that could have been played by many other actors, but few could have equaled this master thesp.
The remainder of the cast is terrific in minor roles including Olympia Dukakis, who appears somewhat briefly in the film as another Alzheimer spouse whose husband Fiona has become friendly with. Her few scenes as she tries to forget his “infidelity” are somewhat surprising, but completely within character.
Polley is probably best remembered for her starring performance in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter. She delivers an intense performance, but one that signified she had a great deal of talent. With Away from Her, Polley has displayed a keen knack for storytelling. Her screenplay is literate, informed and emotionally devastating while her gentle, unobtrusive directorial style only helps to embellish the story and make it stronger. If she can keep this talent going with subsequent efforts, we could be watching the birth of a legend.
Unfortunately, as we’ve seen too often with Canadian films likes The Sweet Hereafter and The Barbarian Invasions, American audiences don’t tend to take notice of our northern neighbor’s output. This is in spite of the country’s ability to produce some remarkable work including C.R.A.Z.Y. which wasn’t even given a theatrical release in the United States.
Away from Her may be one of Canada’s best offerings this year, evinced by the slew of awards recognition it has received. Hopefully its success and a potential Academy Award for Julie Christie will encourage audiences to check the film out on DVD and then expand their selections to include many of these and other Canadian gems.
January 29, 2008