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Arts & Culture

Film Review: 'Away From Her'

Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent star as a couple in Sarah Polley's "Away From Her."
Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent star as a couple in Sarah Polley's "Away From Her."

Showcase for a radiant Julie Christie

This week two films directed by actresses open. In addition to Adrienne Shelly's "Waitress," there is also Sarah Polley's "Away From Her" (opening May 11 at Landmarks Hillcrest Cinemas). And coincidentally, both actresses worked with indie director Hal Hartley, who also has a film opening later this month.

Sarah Polley's "Away from Her" introduces us to an active older couple living in Canada. Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona Anderson (Julie Christie) have been married for more than four decades and they still seem sweetly in love. They go cross country skiing together each evening, and enjoy a tender and jovial relationship. When Fiona attempts to put a pan in the freezer, she gently jokes, "Don't worry, I'm just losing my mind."

But Fiona growing forgetfulness is soon diagnosed as Alzheimer's. Grant is determined to care for his beloved wife no matter what comes but Fiona has other plans. She doesn't want to be a burden and she decides to check herself into an upscale rest home. The rest homes policy requires that new patients not see any family or friends for their first 30 days at the facility, so that they can acclimate to their new surroundings. This will be the first time that Grant and Fiona will endure such a long separation, and Grant is fiercely opposed to the experiment. But Fiona insists.

When Grant returns to visit Fiona after a month, he's shocked to discover that she barely recognizes him. Instead she dotes on a fellow patient named Aubrey (Michael Murphy), who's mute and wheelchair bound. Fiona attentively cares for Aubrey and you wonder if this is her way of coping with her disease, as if intently focusing on someone worse off than herself will give her a new purpose in life. Grant is angry, devastated and jealous. When he confronts Fiona, all she can say is that Aubrey "doesn't confuse me." As Grant copes with these changes in their relationship, we discover some secrets about their past that complicate their present situation even more.

Sarah Polley's screenplay is based on the Alice Munro story, "The Bear Came Over the Mountain." Polley employs a straightforward yet somewhat non-linear structure to weave her tale about a disintegrating relationship. She's not a particularly inventive storyteller but she's clear-sighted and intent on giving her characters all the room they need to develop. Theres nothing flashy in her approach, but she respects her characters and the story they have to tell. As an actor-turned-director, she has faith that her talented cast can convey the kinds of emotions that will compel an audience. And when you have performers such as Christie and Pinsent, thats a highly intelligent approach.

Polley has perfectly cast her leads. Christie (with whom Polley acted in Hal Hartley's "No Such Thing") is still a radiant presence at 66 and she rivets us to the screen. Her Fiona is a woman of grace, charm and beauty, and we can understand why Grant is so unwilling to give her up to either Alzheimer's or another man. She has a certain faraway look in her eyes that makes us believe she's not altogether present yet theres also a brightness about her that makes us wonder if she has been properly diagnosed. It's that brightness in fact that makes Grant wonder if perhaps she is feigning her memory loss as a means of punishing him for his earlier infidelities. And there are times when we don't know for sure ourselves. Christie's performance shows us the tragedy of what's lost when someone succumbs to Alzheimer's. Personally, Alzheimer's is more terrifying a fate than anything concocted in a horror movie because it is essentially about losing one's identity.

But while Christie is the sad yet glowing center of the film, Pinsent's performance is what holds the film together. His steadfast love and growing realization of what his future holds is heartbreakingly sad. But Pinsent's performance is never cloyingly sentimental. It is always direct and deeply felt.

Fine support comes from Olympia Dukakis as an unexpected new companion and Kristen Thomson as a warmly sympathetic nurse. Both actresses develop their characters in surprising depth and with unexpected layers of complexity.

"Away From Her" (rated PG-13) is a graceful and intelligent work about the changes and obstacles that can arise for an older couple.

Companion viewing: "Darling," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "Iris," "My Life Without Me," "The Sweet Hereafter," "No Such Thing"