Early in the Canadian film Away from Her, Julie Christie offhandedly rejects an invite to the movies. "All those multiplexes showing the same American garbage," she complains. Those who empathize with her remark will treasure Away from Her, an unusually scrupulous, note-perfect drama about the emotional ravages of Alzheimer's disease.
In these parts, director Sarah Polley is known—if she is known at all—as a one-time child actor (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) who blossomed into an indie-film darling in pictures such as Existenz, The Sweet Hereafter and My Life Without Me. The thespian's feature writing-directing debut suggests that nothing can daunt the 28-year-old wunderkind. Polley's practiced sensitivity to human behavior and love of actors make Away from Her a profound and poignant requiem for our preferred human conditions.
Julie Christie plays Fiona, a woman drifting into the throes of Alzheimer's disease, and Gordon Pinsent plays her husband Grant, who agrees only with the greatest reluctance to place her in a nursing home. What follows is a highly unusual and heartbreaking love story. Polley's adaptation of the Alice Munro short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" uses a graceful flashback structure to allow the story to unfold in two separate timelines. But the greatest impressions are made by Christie and Pinsent, an unknown entity in the States who should get awards consideration for his subtly powerful work.
Repeated allusions to Auden reflect Polley's poetic observation. The film begins with an apt metaphor: the well-bundled, loving couple returning to their cozy home in the wild by retracing, on skis, their own snowy tracks. Retracing steps becomes the principal challenge for Fiona and Grant; after life in a facility, Fiona's visit home becomes a museum tour of her old life. The comfortable life they've built together changes irreversibly, and in no small part due to the influence of another man, a highly dependent rest-home resident named Aubrey (Michael Murphy, in a truly inspired bit of casting).
Given his own past sins and Fiona's hazy state of mind, Grant's in no position to begrudge her "affair," but it deepens his insecurity and suspicion about the home's well-meaning but disturbing methodology. Grant begins to form new bonds with people in a position to help him: a likeably blunt nurse (Kristen Thomson) and Aubrey's wife Marian (Olympia Dukakis, setting aside her blaring performances in recent Hollywood pap). The story is, of course, heartbreaking, but it's also cathartic and hardly humorless.
As in her acting, Polley proves incapable of false notes, and allows silences to speak volumes. In one of the film's best scenes, Grant gets an objectively well-executed presentational tour of the facility that's entirely underscored by his unspoken personal horror. Fiona wisely says, "I think all we can aspire to in this situation is a little grace." The gently flattering camerawork of Luc Montpellier and the subtlety of Polley and her cast make Away from Her a study in meeting the most trying challenges with directness and dignity.