“Away From Her” presents an intriguing paradox: In quiet, understated ways, it marks the debut of a powerfully talented new director.
Sarah Polley, the 28-year-old Canadian actress best known for roles in “Go” and “The Sweet Hereafter,” steps behind the camera for her first feature with the confidence and precision of a seasoned veteran.
Polley also wrote the script, based on Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” about a woman’s slow descent into the hazy abyss of Alzheimer’s disease and the surprising way her husband of 44 years responds.
Merely the idea of the subject matter could have been enough to make you cringe. The film could have been maudlin and shamelessly heart-tugging, like something created for the Lifetime channel. Instead, filtered through a deadpan, no-nonsense sensibility, “Away from Her” is truly, deeply, purely effective.
How did Polley do it? How did she convey knowledge of an age decades beyond her own with such sensitivity, wisdom and depth? Saying she’s an old soul seems like an oversimplification, and a cliché. We can say this with certainty: She’s an extraordinarily gifted filmmaker, someone you’d like to see more from in the future.
Perhaps because she’s been an actress her whole life, Polley draws complex performances from her cast, especially Julie Christie as the afflicted Fiona. After all this time, Christie still possesses a beauty that’s startling in its clarity; what she does with just a wry smile or the widening of her blue eyes says so much. But she also wasn’t afraid to appear increasingly disheveled the more her character succumbs.
Gordon Pinsent co-stars as her intellectual teddy bear of a husband, Grant, with subtle sweetness, and their scenes together grow more heartbreaking as the film — and the disease — progress.
In the beginning, though, Polley depicts their marriage as a real friendship. Fiona and Grant enjoy cross-country skiing and cooking and reading aloud while lounging on the couch in their cottage. They still have fun just hanging out after decades together — there’s a playfulness and affection to their interaction that’s heartening.
But because Grant knows Fiona better than anyone, he also notices immediately when little things appear wrong. She’ll forget what she was talking about, misplace an item in the kitchen, and soon a faraway look begins to creep into her eyes.
It’s her idea to enter a nursing home, something she suggests matter-of-factly. “We are at that stage,” she tells him. And while he’s devastated at the prospect of being away from her (hence the title), he never flails or sobs about it.
Besides, incessant cheeriness is the standard at the idyllic-sounding Meadowlake, where Madeleine the administrator (Wendy Crewson) clickety-clacks her way through the halls as a perky, officious tyrant. The place is purgatory with Jell-O, one long bridge game. Polley never shies away from the absurdity of it, or the inherent bleakness.
It’s not all agony, though. Thankfully, there are some moments of dark humor, courtesy of Olympia Dukakis as the wife of another Meadowlake patient — a man with whom Fiona becomes inordinately fixated. (There’s also the former Winnipeg Jets broadcaster who does boisterous play-by-play of his own banal life. He’s a scream.)
For whatever reason, Fiona attaches herself to Aubrey (Michael Murphy), a man in a wheelchair who can barely speak. She thinks she knows him from childhood and assumes the role of his personal caretaker. Meanwhile, she barely recognizes her own husband, and dismisses him daily with a polite, detached, “So I’ll see you tomorrow, I suppose.” It’s not exactly an affair but it feels like a more severe transgression; nevertheless, Grant stands by his woman for reasons that, in time, become poignantly clear.
The distance between them is torture for him, and for us. Polley establishes a mood of simple, aching loneliness, similar to what you might find in a film by fellow Canadian Atom Egoyan, whom Polley has worked with several times and who serves here as an executive producer.
But that’s where comparisons should end. “Away From Her” is a singular work and, except for an Iraq War reference that feels wedged in — perhaps a nod to Polley’s politically active past — it tackles a difficult subject with near perfection.