AWAY FROM HER
Director: Sarah Polley
Screenwriters: Sarah Polley, short story by Alice Munro
Executive Producers: Atom Egoyan, Doug Mankoff
Producers: Daniel Iron, Simone Urdl, Jennifer Weiss
Cast: Julie Christie, Gordan Pinsent, Olympia Dukakis
Canada, 2006, 110 min.
*The creative forces--an outstanding cast, a script adapted from an eloquent short story, and an actress turned filmmaker who has worked with some of the best directors in the business--don't begin to explain what the impressive Sarah Polley has accomplished in Away From Her. She has crafted a film that would be remarkable for a filmmaker even twice her age.
Away From Her relates a beautiful, yet unconventional, story of a couple coming to grips with the onset of memory loss. Fiona (Julie Christie) is well aware of what awaits her. To release her husband (Gordon Pinsent) from the inevitable fate of becoming her caretaker, she chooses to check herself into a home specializing in Alzheimer's patients. The couple must begin working through the complex transition from lovers to strangers.
Away From Her is like a love story in reverse. Through the commitment of the couple to respect each other's wishes, the history of their love becomes increasingly evident. You are witness to the incredible bond that has made them nearly inseparable for more than 45 years.
At the heart of Away From Her are exquisite performances by Christie and Pinsent in fully realized characters that are both heartbreaking and inspiring. And of course Polley, who proves herself a master at making even the smallest action captivating enough to mesmerize her audience.
*Summary by John Cooper, SUNDANCE Film Programmer
A very quiet and subtle film, Sarah Polley’s Away From Her was a thorough and complete exploration of these two characters. Ultimately, a bit too slow and restrained for my tastes, I didn’t see a more complete and moving character study at Sundance this year. The film does not require one to have any personal experience with the victims of Alzheimer’s disease, but I noticed that members of the audience who had that kind of familiarity were farm more touched by the story. Watching such a minutely realized exploration of the emotional effects of this disease must be damn near torturous for anyone close to victims of the disease.
Julie Christie’s performance as ‘Fiona’ was excellent, and it is wonderful to see a film give such a fine actress the chance to stretch again. I don’t know much about how one acts out Alzheimer’s as I am unfamiliar with the symptoms, but her performance felt like it nailed the details. Gordon Pinsent’s performance as Fiona’s husband, Grant, did not feel as fully realized to me. In a very restrained film, his presentation came off as too subtle and restrained for me.
Sarah Polley has found a fascinating way of exploring a relationship. As the summary above notes, their marriage unfolds in reverse. At the beginning, both Fiona and Grant are in their twilight years, happily married and content. The film chronicles their necessary separation into friendship. As Fiona becomes more and more withdrawn and frightened by the intensity of Grant’s emotions, Grant is forced to bury his feelings toward his wife and treat her more like a friend. The crux is that sometimes she remembers their relationship, so there are days when she is expecting more from Grant and days when she is expecting friendship. It is such a hard thing for Grant to cope with, especially when Fiona appears to be, for a moment, as her old self. His hopes get raised that she might be getting better, might be coming back to him. Every single time, his hopes are dashed; as she sinks further into forgetfulness and becomes involved with another man at the hospital.I would have loved to have seen a breaking moment, a scene of stark emotion. I do appreciate the reality that Sarah Polley is trying to establish, however, the mood of the film just never touched me like it was supposed to. The framing scenes with Grant and Olympia Dukakasis’ character work well and are never confusing. The final scene with Grant and Fiona does bring a bit of closure to their relationship, and the use of a big tracking, circular shot around Fiona really lends the final scene a sense of grace and romance. I would have liked to have seen more of this sensibility in the film. In the Q &A following the screening, Sarah Polley came off as humble and endearing. She admits that she is still learning how to be a director and that she has really just started her journey in that field. Judging by the mastery of tone, image, and performance demonstrated with this film, she is already far more accomplished than most other young directors.