Should Julie Christie’s inevitable Oscar nomination for Best Actress (and probable win) bring AWAY FROM HER back to the theaters in your town do not miss it! A film that slipped through the cracks to some extent in the US in May (although it’s grossed a respectable $4.5 million to-date), it’s one of THE film experiences of 2007.
Directed by twenty-something Sarah Polley (lead actress of such films as “MY LIFE WITHOUT ME") it has the assured directorial hand of an old master; in fact to me it was reminiscent of 1970s Ingmar Bergman. Julie Christie does indeed give a tour de force performance, but the entire ensemble is award-worthy.
The story (adapted by Polley from an Alice Munro short story) concerns Fiona Anderson (Christie), who has already begun losing her memory to Alzheimer’s disease as the film begins. She’s decided to have herself placed in a care facility to ease the struggle her husband will eventually face. At one point we see Fiona cross country skiing away from her wintery home as her husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent) watches her slip over a crest and disappear, just as she soon will from his life. In fact, when she wanders off following this excursion, it forces Grant’s hand in agreeing to put her into the Meadowlake care facility.
Her transformation is almost instantaneous in screen time, because the movie has little to do with observing Fiona’s progression into an addled state. Instead its about the discovery of how much her husband of 44 years is in love with her, seen in his actions over the next several months watching her from afar, mostly, as she is frequently disturbed by his presence, never quite remembering who he is. Pinsent plays Grant unsentimentally which is key to the characterization and pivotal to the film’s uniqueness.
In between the scenes at Meadowlake, are intercut Grant’s meeting with a woman named Marian (Olympia Dukakis). Marian is the wife of Aubrey (Michael Murphy), a man who the memory-lost Fiona grows attached to at Meadowlake. Dukakis plays the no-nonsense, almost fatalistic Marian flawlessly. Marian’s “such is life” philosophy in some way eases the audience along in accepting Fiona’s condition and thereby focusing the movie on the bond between Grant and Fiona, which, despite hinted at difficulties, has remained intact over their long marriage.
At several times during the movie the audience seems to be brought right out onto the edge of writing the film off as far-too-depressing, only to have a wrinkle in the plot refocus attention to the love story and away from the downbeat. Several times throughout the film Polley has a character walk away down a corridor at Meadowlake that’s designed to bring in the sunlight; at these perfectly timed moments that cap dramatic sequences, the celluloid brightens and your heart breaks just a little bit reflecting on what has just transpired.
As the end of the movie’s final scene approached, I found myself thinking: wow, this could end right here—and after one nice brief final touch, the credits began to roll. AWAY FROM HER has been out on DVD for a few months and may not suffer on the small screen, however, if you prefer the big screen, you may want to catch it while you have a second opportunity, it’s is a stunning achievement, a great film.
OSCAR UPDATE: Writer/Director Sarah Polley was nominated for Best Screenplay. Julie Christie was nominated for Best Actress!