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3 reviews, 29 user ratings
|Away From Her
by Peter Sobczynski
The good news about “Away From Her” is that it is an extraordinarily moving drama that simultaneously offers viewers the chance to witness both a stunning directorial debut and an acclaimed screen icon turning in one of the very best performances of a career filled with standout roles. The bad news is that when I tell you what the film is about, the subject matter alone is liable to turn off the vast majority of you who are simply looking for an entertaining film to relax with on an early summer evening. To be honest, I can’t really blame people for having such a reaction–if I heard the basic plot described to me and knew nothing else about it, I might also be tempted to pass it over for the easy-to-grasp likes of “Delta Farce” or “Shrek 3" as well. However, I have seen the film and I can assure you that as depressing and unappealing as the premise might seem at first glance, that is how powerful and unforgettable it turns out to be by the time the last haunting frames have faded from view.Based on the Alice Munro short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” Julie Christie and Gordon Pinset star as Fiona and Grant, an Ontario couple who, as the story begins, have been married for over 44 years. Some of those years have been less happy than others–there are suggestions that Grant, a former university professor, may have had the occasional dalliance with a comely co-ed–but at this point in their lives, whatever rough patches they may have had are long in the past and their relationship appears to be as strong as ever. However, we gradually begin to notice the occasional bit of forgetfulness on the part of Fiona–she will wash a frying pan and put it in the freezer or blank out on a word like “wine” even while she is holding a bottle of it in her hands. For a while, the two are willing to brush the incidents off as mere absent-mindedness but as they begin to grow more frequent and more dangerous, it becomes evident that Fiona is going through the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. Realizing that Grant won’t be able to properly care for her by himself as it progresses, Fiona takes charge of the situation and decides to enter an assisted-care facility that will be able to provide for her.
"Sarah Polley Is As Gifted Behind The Camera As She Is In Front Of It"
The facility she chooses is a nice enough place but one of the firm rules that they have is that new patients are not allowed to have any outside visitors for the first 30 days of their stay in order to make the transition smoother. For Grant, who is still trying to convince himself and others that Fiona’s condition is just a passing thing that she will soon overcome, this is a particularly harsh and cruel obstacle–not only will this mark the longest that they have been separated in their entire lives together, there is also the possibility that the progression of her disease may mean that she may no longer remember him when he is allowed to see her again. When the 30 days are up, Grant returns and is devastated to discover that while she still kind of remembers him, it is more on the level of a vaguely remembered acquaintance you might run into at the grocery store than as the person with whom she spent the better part of her life. To make things even more painful, Fiona has developed a close relationship with fellow patient Aubrey (Michael Murphy), a wheelchair-bound mute whom she now dotes upon. A sympathetic nurse (Kristen Thomson) tries to explain to him that these things do sometimes happen and Fiona, in one of her increasingly rare moments of lucidity, tries to explain with the simple and crushing statement “He doesn’t confuse me.” As Fiona slips further away from him, Grant has to decide whether to try to hold on to a relationship with a person who no longer truly exists or to allow her to live out her remaining days in as happy a manner as possible under the circumstances.
“Away From Her” deals with the kind of difficult and challenging material that could easily stymie even a veteran filmmaker–one false step and the entire thing could turn into a turgid and treacly soap opera along the lines of the utterly appalling “The Notebook.” That said, I cannot imagine any well-known filmmaker who could have done a better job in bringing this story to the screen than Sarah Polley has done in her directorial debut. Although she is probably most familiar to American audiences from her appearance in the “Dawn of the Dead” remake, she has quietly carved out a career for herself as one of the most reliably impressive young actresses working today through her collaborations with such mavericks as Michael Winterbottom (“The Claim”), Wim Wenders (“Don’t Come Knocking”) and, most significantly, Atom Egoyan (especially her transcendent performance as the paralyzed young woman at the center of “The Sweet Hereafter”)–she is of those rare performers whose name in the credits is almost always a guarantee that the resulting movie will at least be interesting during the moments when she is on screen. She is a wonderful actress and the idea of no longer having her around as a performer is too depressing to contemplate but on the strength of her work her as a director and screenwriter, she could easily chuck the day job altogether for an equally significant career behind the camera.
In adapting Munro’s tale to the big screen, she allows the story to quietly and elegantly unfold at its own pace and correctly resists the urge to spike it with the kind of melodramatic moments that look great as Oscar highlight clips but which rarely occur in real life–some of the most affecting moments in the film are the ones in which nothing is said, such as an unbearably heartbreaking moment in which Grant drives Fiona past a forest preserve that marked an important moment in their lives and is crushed to discover that she hardly even notices it. As a director, she demonstrates a similar unwillingness to show off with the kind of flashy camera moves or self-conscious homages that usually mar the work of first-time directors–she has enough confidence in her material and the actors she has assembled to make such attention-grabbing tricks unnecessary. At the same time, however, she demonstrates a lovely and understated cinematic style that is reminiscent of a filmmaker like Egoyan–especially in the elliptical manner in which the story unfolds–without ever crossing over into slavish imitation. As a result, “Away From Her” is one of the strongest directorial debuts to come along in recent memory.
Of course, a lot of credit for the success of the film must also go to the moving performances contributed by the entire cast. So far, Julie Christie has received the lion’s share of the acclaim for her performance as Fiona and you can hardly fault her for that because this may be the pinnacle of a career that has already seen such considerable high-water marks as “Darling,” “Doctor Zhivago,” “Petulia,” “McCabe & Mrs Miller,” “Don’t Look Now” and “Afterglow.” When we first see her, there is a brief bit of surprise because she looks older than we have ever seen her appear before but she has a spark in those early scenes that makes her seem more vibrant and alive that most of the younger generations of actors working today and it is the gradual disappearance of that spark that makes the later scenes so devastating to behold.
However, the rest of the cast is just as strong as Christie and deserve notice as well. Gordon Pinset, well-known in Canada but relatively unknown in these parts, is just as affecting as the husband who also suffers as a result of his wife’s disease–in a way, his role is almost harder than Christie’s because if we don’t believe in his character and his actions, the entire thing could collapse. Michael Murphy makes a memorable impression as the new man in Fiona’s life–a considerable achievement when you realize that he has to somehow create an entire character without ever uttering a single word–as does Olympia Dukakis as his no-nonsense wife who is just as at odds with what is going on as Grant is. I was even fascinated by the supporting work from Wendy Crewson as the blandly unctuous nursing home head–the type of functionary who no doubt means well but whose never-ending string of empty platitudes will eventually have even the most peaceable person longing to shove her face into the nearest box fan.This weekend, I have no doubt that many of you will trot out to your local multiplex to catch the heavily-hyped likes of “Spider-Man 3" or “28 Weeks Later” without even giving a film like “Away From Her” a second thought–assuming, of course, that it is even playing near you in the first place. If it is playing in your area, however, I would really encourage you to abandon your original plans and give this film a chance instead for two simple reasons. For starters, “Spider-Man 3" and “28 Weeks Later” are still going to be around a couple of weeks from now while a film like “Away From Her” runs a serious risk of getting lost amidst all the hype surrounding those blockbusters. More importantly–and ironically, given the subject matter–“Away From Her” is the kind of powerhouse moviegoing experience that is likely to continue to make a significant impression on you long after all the big-budget gumdrops have long faded from memory.
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originally posted: 05/11/07 00:22:58
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