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Suffering too clean in ‘My Life’

Sarah Polley is a woman diagnosed with terminal cancer
/ Source: contributor

Even if Sarah Polley were a more expressive actor — and she is a sweetly appealing one — “My Life Without Me” would suffer from conceptual blurriness that drags its good qualities.

Made in Canada by Spanish director and writer Isabel Coixet, it has Polley as Ann, an office cleaner with a nice husband (Scott Speedman) and delightful daughters. They live in a trailer home, and she likes life despite a depressed mom (Deborah Harry) and dull job, where co-worker Laurie is a funny flake as only Amanda Plummer can be in such a role.

Then, fate. Ann is told she has inoperable cancer. Her doctor is played as the soul of empathy by gargoyle-faced Julian Richings, a veteran incarnator of trash (he’s the hired scum who bolts from the showdown in “Open Range”).

Shaken but stoical, instinctively resilient, Ann resolves to compose a good exit without telling people. She helps her mom. She tapes messages for the girls’ coming years. She looks for a replacement her husband will like, and (presto!) Eleanor Watling is hugely appealing as a single neighbor also named Ann. She treats herself to the illicit infatuation of Mark Ruffalo, a master of gulping sensitivity.

Despite Polley’s habit of saintly flotation, which lacks the dense wallop of Emily Watson in “Breaking the Waves,” the cast is keenly engaged. The story is affecting, but Ann’s ordering of her termination is too smooth and benignly crafted, as if she had found a “go out with style on a tight budget” catalog.

A film that so embraces the emotional aspects of dying should perhaps not be hammered for skipping on the physical side. But we’ve had too many antiseptic cancer deaths in movies (“Terms of Endearment” was the classic air freshener); Ann’s closure starts to seem a pipe dream and wish fulfillment. It’s all too darn nice.

Coixet transformed Nanci Kincaid’s “Pretending the Bed is a Raft” — in the book, Ann tells people of her illness — and she found the cast, the wet Vancouver locations, the subtle moods, the specific people. But her graceful film is a hankie pretending to be a veil of consolation.

David Elliott is the movie critic of The San Diego Union-Tribune. © 2003 by the Copley News Service