Sarah Polley is something of an indie darling. She turned her back on Hollyweird to make films she’s passionate about. As an actor, she’s been around since even before her “big break” in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and has maybe two relatively commercial credits to her credit: the TV series Road to Avonlea, and James Gunn’s revisionist take on George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Away From Her is Polley’s first feature effort as writer/director and it is a film of quiet magnificence.
Fiona [Julie Christie] is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and perfectly aware of it. Her husband, Grant [Gordon Pinsent,] is not as quick to accept – until one day, she declares that it’s time to look into institutionalized care. After forty-four years of marriage, they will soon be living apart for the first time.
Meadowlake is one of those solid, well-lit facilities of which its manager can boastfully [and accurately] state, “We get a lot of natural light.” Despite the all-business demeanor of Madeleine [Wendy Crewson], said manager, there’s a feeling that the home is not entirely antiseptic – a feeling provided by the energetic Nurse Kristy [Kristen Thomsen]. The one big problem is that the institution does not allow any visitors for thirty days – and when Grant returns a month later, Fiona has become close friends with Aubrey [Michael Murphy], a mute fellow who turns out to be there for only a temporary stay.
The bulk of the movie deals with the manner in which Grant deals with being forgotten – and in the way Fiona’s life has changed even more than his. It’s a strange movie – it relies as heavily on silences as any movie I’ve ever seen. It is directed with the same crispness as the fresh snow that adorns the area in which the story takes place.
Polley has recruited an excellent cast. Besides the leads, you will recognize Alberta Watson [Nikita and 24] and Olympia Dukakis [playing Aubrey’s wife, Marian] in pivotal roles. The revelation, for most Americans, will be Pinsent, who is getting incredible buzz in Hollywood after having eschewing its fast track several decades ago to return to Canada, where he’s made a career out of writing, acting and directing.
As Grant, Pinsent is as still and quiet as James mason at his best. He doesn’t let tears flow so much as he allows them to well up before blinking them away. He doesn’t yell and cry so much as he lets his body tremble ever so slightly to emphasize a growing emotion he hates being forced to experience.
Christie, on the other hand, is more upfront as Fiona. She’s not loud, as such, but she is forthright – about her Alzheimer’s; about their love and, especially, about the way that their marriage had its cracks and flaws, but survived. At sixty-six, the camera still loves her, and her skill has grown to a point that she plays her light in precise, yet unforced ways. Her craft is a match for Pinsent’s and the result is two of the most fully realized characters in film.
Michael Murphy is a revelation as Aubrey. Most of his roles involve his being glib, or at least erudite. Here, in a role that refuses him the crutch of language, he says more with just his eyes than one might have thought possible.
Away From Her is not a film for the impatient. It makes its way slowly, deliberately, but surely through the maze of emotions and events that come to define the remains of Grant and Fiona’s marriage – and in so doing, shows how even the most unexpected people can become noble through struggle.
This is one of the year’s best films.