Film Reviews

Away From Her Sarah Polley

Rating - 7/10

Away From Her, the writing and directing debut of actor Sarah Polley, is a tremendously promising debut, and an exceptional film in its own right. It doesn't feel so much like a young actor's first film, in that it is not bloated with appearances by famous friends and every movie device she ever wanted to try out. Rather, Away From Her is a quietly heartbreaking drama about a few older people crafted with surprisingly mature sensitivity by Polley, who is 28. In a post-Tarantino cinescape where many young film-makers seem desperate to one up each other with hyperactivity, genre mash-ups and deconstructions, self-reflexivity, hyperbolic cleverness and spectacle, and other meta shenanigans, a debut as stately and graceful as Away From Her is refreshing and encouraging.

The first, and most effective, section of the film involves the life of a long married couple (Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie), Grant and Fiona, as they acknowledge and cope with her increasing forgetfulness and onset of Alzheimer's Disease. Against his stubborn reluctance, Fiona makes the decision to move to an assisted living facility with the policy, traumatic to Grant, of forbidding any visitors for the first month of residency. This passage of the film has the powerful intimacy and stark effectiveness of a Bergman chamber drama. Pinsent and Christie carry it with pitch perfect performances. Pinsent subtly conveys the stubbornness and reluctance of a man with more unresolved guilt and regret than he cares to express. Christie turns her movie star charisma to characteristically interesting effect, showing a woman who retains a fierce, independent spark even as her memory drifts away.

The second part of the film focuses on Grant's difficulties in adjusting to life after Fiona's move and her deteriorating condition. After a month, as long as they've been separated for over forty years of marriage, he returns to find Fiona markedly more distant to him, friendly but often not recalling him as her husband. She is much more affectionate and loyal to a fellow resident named Aubrey (Michael Murphy), who has diminished functions since a trauma, and "never confuses" Fiona. Grant's jealousy, and suspicion that Fiona may be affecting some of her affliction as punishment for past betrayals, is never played for melodrama. Rather, such developments are tactfully explored as Grant forms relationships with nurse Kristy (Kristen Thomson) and Aubrey's wife Marian (Olympia Dukakis) that help him find a way through Fiona's inevitable worsening. Though uniformly well acted, this section of the movie can't help but feel as if it has a diluted focus from earlier scenes focusing alone on the central couple, and a late film visit home is extremely sad and moving.

As well executed as all of this is, Polley does suffer from some beginner's excess. While most of her writing is effective beyond her years, the dialogue occasionally falls under its own seriousness and weight. Particularly with Dukakis' character, there are instances when a simple answer to a question would be preferable to lengthy ruminations about the nature of life and humanity. Speaking of length, and despite an effective and appropriate reflective pace, twenty minutes could probably be shaved off the runtime for a more powerful whole. The ending is fine, as happy as could be reasonably expected, but temporary and precarious. This is a film concerning life beyond "ever after." Still, by the time this conclusion arrives, it seems as if Polley has already continued past a few other pretty good endings.

Such nits picked, Away From Her is still a very good movie. As a teenager, Sarah Polley appeared in Atom Egoyan's best films, Exotica and his masterpiece, The Sweet Hereafter. Away From Her favourably recalls those works, and Egoyan served as an executive producer. Beautiful Canadian landscapes and immaculately composed overhead shots make this a much better looking, and more cinematic, film than the story would indicate, as well as intriguingly treated, recurring glimpses of the past. Above all, the storytelling evokes prime Egoyan. Time is lightly fractured so that conversations from the past and present frame sequences, making them more resonant and poetic, as does borrowed text read aloud, lingering over the story's images. As depressing as the subject matter may be, Sarah Polley has crafted one of the most touching dramas, and one of the most hopeful debuts, in recent memory.