Away From Her
2007Director: Sarah Polley
Cast: Julie Christie, Michael Murphy, Gordon Pinsent
l Pacino once called Julie Christie “the most poetic of all actresses.” It’s fitting, then, that she gives the best performance of her career in Away From Her, the feature directorial debut of Sarah Polley, a Canadian actress best known for her work in Go and The Sweet Hereafter. As a filmmaker, she uses her camera as a Romantic poet uses his pen. By focusing closely on the ruddy texture of a homemade cookie, fresh ski tracks imbedded in a blanket of snow or the thick fibers of a favorite sweater, Polley is able to turn the depiction of an everyday object or sensation into something honest, familiar, and sublime. Her use of sensuous homespun imagery renders this simple tale about the ravaging effects of Alzheimer’s into a strikingly personal affair. But ultimately it all comes back to Christie to provide the kind of tour de force performance required by the film’s emotionally-loaded subject matter, and on this promise she delivers in spades.
Christie is no stranger to critical and popular praise. She’s been astounding audiences for decades with her intensity (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Dr. Zhivago), her sense of humor (Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait), and her outrageous good looks (all of the above). But what makes her performance as Fiona so affecting is that as her Alzheimer’s “progresses,” as one character detachedly puts it, the audience sees that energy and keen sense of understanding that have marked her very best roles start to fade away. And yet Fiona’s beauty and that indelible piercing glint in her eyes remains, only to mock and remind her husband, Grant (Gordon Pinsent), of the woman who’s slowly slipping away from him.
The rest of the cast is also spectacular. Michael Murphy, without a single word of dialogue, offers up one of the best performances of his career as Aubrey, a fellow Alzheimer’s patient who Fiona mistakes for a past love. But the actor who comes closest to matching Christie’s intensity is Pinset, who shifts between hope, resignation and numb persistence in his futile attempts to reconnect with Fiona. He communicates storms of emotion by exuding a subtle yet ubiquitous sense of quiet panic throughout the film.
Just as the players avoid the sentimental trappings that tend to accompany such sensitive topics (something that The Notebook, this generation’s pre-eminent Alzheimer’s drama, failed to do), Polley approaches the material with maturity and respect. To highlight the film’s more emotional sequences, she eschews big sweeping strings in favor of the quiet heartbreak of Neil Young. And where a hotshot Hollywood director might try to illustrate Grant and Fiona’s passion with a big sloppy embrace in the middle of a rainstorm, Polley knows that a soft midnight peck on the shoulder from a husband to his wife has much more resonance.
Away From Her is not a perfect film by any means; a subplot involving Aubrey’s wife (Olympia Dukakis) eventually falls flat and the film’s non-linear storytelling feels unnecessary and tedious at times. Nevertheless, Polley’s debut is astonishingly mature and her work is sure to become more focused as she progresses as a director and writer. The level of sadness and pathos that Polley and especially Christie are able to bring out of this material makes for a harrowing film-going experience that portrays devotion in the face of adversity and also elucidates a much harder lesson: when to let go.
Away From Her is currently in limited release.
By: David Holmes
Published on: 2007-06-11
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