Director: Sarah Polley
Although the tagline of Away From Her proclaims, “it’s never too late to become what you might have been,” in the case of Canadian actress turned writer/director Sarah Polley who, just in her twenties made this film her feature filmmaking debut, it’s never too early to do so as well. Based on Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” Away From Her which was adapted by Polley specifically with actress Julie Christie in mind (IMDb) won the young director numerous awards at festivals including the Portland International Film Festival, Sarasota Film Festival and Sedona International Film Festival. And now that we’re coming into award season, it’s being talked up again for the Best Actress category and Julie Christie in particular. Christie stars as Fiona, a beautifully happily married woman whose tendency to forget things has been increasing at an alarming rate. When she goes to the doctor’s office with Grant (Gordon Pinsent), her loving retired professor husband, they are saddened to learn that she has developed Alzheimer’s and will have to go into a nursing home soon. Being strong for her husband, Fiona makes the decision to check in but their relationship is put to the test after they discover that Grant will be unable to visit for the first thirty days as the staff wants residents to adjust. What’s thirty days after more than forty years of marriage? This rationalization is used to get the two to finally act but we find ourselves instantly worried and reminded of the story Grant often tells of his engagement to Fiona who proposed to him while still in her teens as sort of a joking hypothetical wherein he quickly agreed saying that he never wanted to be away from her. When Grant finally is able to check back in with his wife, he’s shocked when faced by both her mental deterioration that has now made him a stranger to her and also when he realizes that she has developed a romantic attachment to fellow resident Aubrey (Michael Murphy), a wheelchair bound man who although now a mute, Grant realizes that his wife may have known many years earlier. While Christie and Murphy are quite good as is Olympia Dukakis as Aubrey’s frustrated wife, the actor with whom I was most impressed was Gordon Pinsent whose moving portrayal of Grant was completely convincing. He’s a master at cerebral acting and we feel as though we are actually witnessing Grant having thoughts right there onscreen and it’s his quiet turn that serves as the perfect vessel for audiences in going along on the journey. Polley’s deft, knowing script feels completely authentic and she has a delicate yet powerful sensibility as a filmmaker never forcing scenes at us but letting them just sort of fall off the screen, much like the snowflakes that used to delight Christie’s Fiona-- a great lover of cross-country skiing. It’s a depressing but affecting work that may be harder viewing for those whose loved ones are afflicted with Alzheimer’s but it’s well worth the emotional investment.