Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie) Andersson have been married for almost fifty years. They live together in a secluded wood cabin in a Canadian winter wonderland. In the opening sequences of Away From Her, actress turned filmmaker Sarah Polley establishes a life together, an easy intimacy. And then, cleaning up after dinner, Fiona puts the frying pan into the freezer. It's a small moment, but enough to evoke an uncomfortable laugh: a telling precursor of what is to come.
Sarah Polley's accomplished and moving adaption of Alice Munro's short story "The Bear Came Over The Mountain" takes a close look at the steady and ravaging course of Alzheimer's disease. As an actress, Polley is well known for taking on difficult roles in small, difficult films. Aside from some unexpected zombie hunting in Dawn of the Dead, Polley's impressive career has been unflinchingly earnest -- from the sad and precocious wheelchair girl in Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter to a young mother, dying of cancer, who writes letters to her children in Isabel Coixet's My Life Without Me. The same integrity and commitment to a role is evident in Polley's brave choice of source material. With Away From Her, the twenty-eight year old director is willing to go where not many others have.
Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie) at home in "Away From Her."Lionsgate Films
Over the course of the film, the nursing home in which Fiona finds herself becomes a character. Through Grant's frequent visits, we come to recognize the front hallway that gets a lot of light, the communal dining room, the residents' lounge, and the elevator that goes "upstairs," the dreaded quarters where completely debilitated residents wait for the end. Polley breathes life into unglamourous but easily recognizable characters like administrator Madeleine Montpellier (Wendy Crewson), a brisk woman in a business suit, Kristie (Kristen Thompson), the compassionate nurse who has more depth than she first lets on, and many of the other residents, most notably a former TV sports broadcaster who narrates everything he sees.
Away From Her is also a tremendously affecting love story -- not the Hallmark kind, but a weathered relationship that has taken its lumps and still endured. Rarely before have older people been granted such complex life on the screen. In the course of losing her mind, Fiona remembers a betrayal more than two decades old as if it were an open wound. Grant and Fiona's one-way drive to the nursing home is one of the most heartrending scenes on record: Fiona's unexpected anger, Grant's overwhelming sadness, the Neil Young song on the radio, and my own silent response: don't go, not yet.
The reclusive, Oscar-winning actress Julie Christie (Darling
, Dr. Zhivago
) is as beautiful and captivating as ever in the role of Fiona. Gordon Pinsent, a well-known Canadian actor, exudes a taciturn charm that makes his Grant a a much sought after man in the nursing home, whose admirers included Marian (Olympia Dukakis), the wife of wheelchair-bound resident Aubrey (Michael Murphy), who is disconcertingly receptive to Fiona's advances.
For a story with only one possible outcome, Away From Her is full of twists and turns. Polley, a graduate of two Egoyan films, certainly knows how to reshuffle a narrative to increase dramatic tension. She also knows about kindness: she sprinkles an emotionally grueling tale with welcome doses of humor.