A FilmExposed Film Review
Dir: Sarah Polley, 2006, Canada, 110 mins
Cast: Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent, Olympia Dukakis, Michael Murphy
There’s something very refreshing about a film that holds you captive for almost two hours without having to dish out an abundance of technical delicacies. Away From Her is the kind of old fashioned love story that time forgot, a regal portrait of marriage, often laden with rich, last-breath dialogue. Yet, the film contains none of the self-involved mush that we have come to associate with say… Ron Howard for example. 28-year-old director Sarah Polley – making her debut behind the lens – plays it straight, investing her feature with a discreet subtlety and observance that continues to elude many of her seniors.
Buried deep in ice-boxed Ontario, Canada, Fiona (Christie) and Grant (Pinsent) Andersson bask in the twilight of their 44-year-old marriage. She is the apple of his eye. He is her rock – sheltering her with a quiet authority. But Fiona is nearing the trapdoor of dementia, displaying early signs of Alzheimer’s: “I think I may be beginning to disappear”. To her husband’s dismay, she stubbornly admits herself into a specialised housing unit with others who share her condition. He must not visit her for a month so that she may become accustomed to her new surroundings and on his first visit it is clear that she has formed a rather amiable bond with Aubrey (Murphy), a fellow in-mate.
Having missed this years’ boat, Julie Christie has staked an early claim for academy approval with a chilling performance that cuts close to the bone. Her Fiona initially clings to her dignity before surrendering to the inevitable. Withholding an aged, angular beauty, she is at once cool and disarming, distant and radiant. Pinsent too is superb. His Grant suffers a morbid, self-inflicted punishment, persistently arriving at the home only to cast an envious eye upon his estranged spouse and the withered soul who now occupies her attention. Subdued and weary, his Santa Claus beard blends into Polley’s pale snow-scapes. And Olympia Dukakis, playing Aubrey’s wife Marian, displays a rugged, tom-boy charm, clasping moments of freedom in between her husband’s solemn slide to the tomb.
Executive producer of the picture is the highly esteemed Egyptian/Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, with whom Polley collaborated on Exotica (1994) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997). Away From Her exhibits traces of his brooding, elegiac scope as her camera glides through buildings with a slow grace. The nursing home is saturated in a surreal, celestial gleam as if the disease had engulfed the patients in a euphoric tide of innocence. The happy-as-Larry nurses have seen it all before and have become seemingly immune. And the patients very occasionally display the kind of humorous afterthoughts that can only be associated and accepted within the context of their condition. One old chap, first spotted commentating on an ice hockey match, bluntly barks “And here is a man whose heart is broken into a thousand pieces” in true John Motson style.
When Fiona and Aubrey are separated (he is taken home), she retreats into an increasingly lonely shell. Perhaps Grant continues to read ‘Mrs Andersson’ tales of her Icelandic homeland not to soothe her sadness but to console his own eroding spirit. In the final scene, Polley unleashes a moment of pure, sensual ecstasy which questions the entire premise of the film and will no doubt have audiences reaching for the nearest box of Kleenex. Ron Howard, take note.