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Away From Her

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 09/25/07 19:19:19

"It'd be lovely if it weren't so stupid."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

Sarah Polley’s behind-the-camera debut, “Away From Her,” is beautifully directed and even more beautifully acted. But the screenplay - also by Polley - is so clumsy that it causes all of the film’s good intentions to backfire.

The film, adapted from Alice Murno’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” intends to be a poetic case study of Alzheimer’s, although it never feels honest. Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie) are an impossibly happy couple, enjoying cozy days hiking through their Canadian wilderness together, cozy nights reading to each other. But Fiona’s mind is failing, and while Grant originally refuses to accept the changes, he is eventually convinced that it’s time for Fiona to be institutionalized. The place they select is marvelous - caring, kind, knowledgeable - but there’s also a rule: nobody can visit a new patient for the first thirty days of her stay.

Such a plot point is inherently phony; no genuine care center would demand Alzheimer’s patients be cut off from friends and family, especially during a time of major change. Such a rule exists here only as manipulation, a cheap set-up to the plot’s ultimate dilemma.

But then, so much of “Away From Her” is ridiculous in its phoniness. Despite a stilted, withdrawn approach to the writing, dialogue is meant to deliver a lyrical quality to the mind’s decay, leaving Christie mumbling such silliness as this chestnut, heard while Fiona tends to some flowers: “When I look away, I forget what yellow means.” While not as offensively cutesy-quaint as the representation of the disease seen in “The Notebook,” the portrait of Alzheimer’s here always feels like it’s using the disease to boost up a love story, instead of to tell an candid tale of its effects on the victim and her family.

This isn’t the only fakery on display. Consider a running gag involving a patient who used to be a sports announcer; he roams the halls, providing rich-voiced play-by-play on all around him, even bothering to interrupt one vital scene. What’s the point? Did we suddenly stumble into one of those movies where all the inmates are “adorably crazy”? Did we suddenly find ourselves in desperate need of oddball comic relief?

Or what of the goth chick - a movie’s hilariously lame-brained interpretation of the pierced-and-moody style, that is - who appears in one scene to swap cheap platitudes with Grant? Is she there just to give Grant some street cred, an old fart who appreciates dirty words and the brashness of youth? Or how about a scene mid-movie, completely unrelated to anything at all, in which Grant and Fiona watch the Iraq War unfold on TV, only to have Fiona pipe up, “How could they forget Vietnam?” What’s anti-war commentary doing flopping around the middle of this melodrama?

So you see the phoniness, the inescapable falseness at hand. Which brings us back to those thirty days, the first time Grant has spent away from his wife since they were married decades ago. When Grant returns on day thirty-one, he is saddened to see that not only does she barely remember him, but she has taken to a kindly mute named Aubrey (Michael Murphy) instead. To what lengths, then, will Grant go to keep the love of his life happy? Will he visit every day, only to mope about, staring at Fiona and her new beau? Apparently, yes.

He will also visit Aubrey’s wife (Olympia Dukakis), and while it first seems that he is a lonely man trying to make new connections, his real intentions are soon revealed. Aubrey has been released from the institution, and Fiona’s heart has broken; would Aubrey’s wife mind letting him go back to visit Fiona?

There is, admittedly, a potentially powerful sweetness to this bit of sacrifice, a man breaking his own heart to save the heart of his true love. But the facts surrounding this sacrifice - the Alzheimer’s, the cruel obligations of the nursing home - reveal a layer of manipulation that’s downright crass.

What saves the film, curiously, is Polley herself. While her script (admittedly hampered by manipulative source material) is a wreck, her handling of the camera is quite marvelous. She creates moments of fantastic beauty, carefully paced. Polley never gets lost in the story, which zigzags between past and present endlessly. And she pulls touching, restrained performances from all involved, most notably Christie (who refuses to ham it up) and Pinsent (who finds a majestic calm in the midst of it all). This is a superb cast and a wonderful director working together in splendid ways, and they almost save the story from itself.

But only almost. No matter how grand the performances or how lovely the images, they can’t rise above a screenplay as absolutely broken as this. There’s not a genuine moment to be found in this film, and what could have been heartbreakingly beautiful is instead off-putting, crude, and cheap.

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