May 05, 2007

MOVIES: Away From Her (Sarah Polley, 2007)

Here's the thing about Alzheimer's movies: Too often, they dive so quickly into the mental decline part of the story that we haven't had time to get to know the characters; we don't have any sense of who and what are being lost. (This was the major flaw in Iris, for instance; the Kate Winslet flashbacks weren't enough to give a sense of Judi Dench's character.) Much to her credit, Sarah Polley avoids this pitfall in her marvelous movie Away From Her; we get to know Fiona (Julie Christie) quite well in the early part of the movie, even as she begins to display Alzheimer's symptoms.

The casting of Christie also helps immensely; her movie images from the last forty years are so iconic that we feel as if we know her already. In a way that we wouldn't be with most actresses of her generation, we have a sense of the intelligence and vitality that are being lost as Fiona declines. (And since the movie takes place during a Canadian winter, we often see Christie against snowy backdrops, in the harsh glare of winter light, images of Dr. Zhivago dominated my mental flashbacks.) Christie's presence here is not just about the power of an icon, though; it's a superb performance that should be remembered when awards season rolls around.

Fiona and Grant (Gordon Pinsent) have survived some early rough patches in their marriage and settled into a comfortable cottage on the lake. As her Alzheimer's symptoms begin, it is Fiona who decides to move into a nursing home, over Grant's objections. He is not allowed to visit or phone for Fiona's first month at Meadowlake, and is shocked on his first visit to see how rapidly her disease has advanced. He's even more surprised at how quickly she's made new relationships at the home; she's cordial and polite to him as her memories fade, and she seems to be falling in love with another patient.

Christie's performance is understated and subtle; the dialogue is spare, and there are unspoken volumes in her every word and glance. She's matched at every turn by Gordon Pinsent, a fine Canadian actor who's not well-known in the US (think of a more rumpled Donald Sutherland); he communicates every bit of Grant's anguish and desperation in an immensely moving performance. Olympia Dukakis, as the wife of Fiona's new nursing-home friend, is not quite at their level, making her character a bit too much of an ogre.

Director Sarah Polley also wrote the screenplay, adapting Alice Munro's short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain." It's her first film as a director, and it's a stellar debut. Very highly recommended.

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