Appellate Judge Tom Becker had to dig deep in his bag of superlatives to review this film.
"I think I may be beginning to disappear."
Films about aging often show their protagonists as comical (Going in Style), irascible (Dad), or sturdy and maudlin (On Golden Pond). Sometimes filmmakers get it right: Harry and Tonto, for instance, is an honest meditation on growing older and finding one's place in the world, and Leo McCarey's Make Way for Tomorrow is a heartbreaking masterpiece about people losing their place in the world. (Why there is no DVD release for this mystifies me.)
Sarah Polley's elegiac Away from Her is an exceptionally good film, deeply moving without being sentimental, and impeccably performed.
Facts of the Case
Fiona (Julie Christie, Petulia) and Grant (Gordon Pinsent, Saint Ralph) live pleasantly in their cottage far north in Canada. They've been married 44 years. He is a retired professor of mythological studies.
While Grant seems quite hale and capable, all is not well with Fiona. She's forgetting things—small things at first—and making missteps, like putting a frying pan in the freezer rather than the cabinet, that would almost be funny if they weren't so ominous. Grant is concerned; he hopes this will pass, but Fiona knows better. When she gets lost on a routine outing, they both realize they cannot ignore what is happening to her.
They check her into a nursing home, Meadowlake, and Grant cannot see her for a month (to give her time to adjust). When he visits for the first time after being Away from Her, Grant discovers that Fiona has a new friend, and she seems to be living in a new world—one that does not include Grant.
Your first thought when watching Away from Her might be: Who is this lovely old woman who looks something like Julie Christie?
It's difficult watching our icons grow old, particularly those who represented youth and beauty. With some, it's not so hard—Elizabeth Taylor, for instance, has spent a lifetime in the tabloids, so we have been privy to her aging process.
Julie Christie was the embodiment of the sexy swingin' '60s British bird. A fine actress who has worked consistently through the years, she is, in our consciousness, forever Darling. That her face does not routinely turn up in the gossip sheets and sites or on Entertainment Tonight-type programs makes her appearance here all the more affecting. We've never seen her like this. Or heard her like this: Christie goes Canadian here, without a trace of her familiar British accent.
Best known as an actress, the debut of Sarah Polley (The Sweet Hereafter) as a director shows the sure hand of a veteran. She is not afraid to let her scenes run on, and she gives her actors room to breathe and to create their characterizations.
Polley, who adapted the film from Alice Munro's story, "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," plays with the chronology of events. It's a little confusing at first, and it takes a bit for the film to find its rhythm, but when it does, the structure makes sense, particularly in context. Confusion is one of the horrifying hallmarks of Alzheimer's, and that confusion insinuates itself into the lives of those around the person suffering. But this is not a "disease" movie; it's about ordinary life passages marked by not-uncommon, but still extraordinary, circumstances.
Polley does not condescend to her characters. These "old people" are not outrageous quipsters or fonts of wisdom. When Christie tells her husband she wants to make love, it's not as a leering golden girl. We are also spared the "Oscar moment." This is a film of quiet power, not showy outbursts.
Save for a couple of brief, but less-than-elegant bits of exposition (including a speech about Grant's past infidelities, which becomes a major issue in the plot), Polley allows us to surmise more than she tells us. It's gratifying when a director, particularly one as young as Polley (27 when she made this), trusts the intelligence of her audience and the abilities of her cast.
Christie's performance is remarkable, graceful, nuanced, and devastating. As her supportive husband, Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent matches her every step of the way. There is a wonderful sense of shared history between the two and, by the end of the film, we know them not only as they are, but as they were.
While the film is fairly dialogue-heavy, some of its most powerful moments are conveyed without words: the fear and confusion in Fiona's eyes, or the loving stoicism of Grant as he tries to do what's best for his wife.
In a supporting role, Olympia Dukakis (Moonstruck) is Marian, the wife of Fiona's new friend. Dukakis is in fine form playing a woman who has resolved herself to life's compromises.
Lionsgate gives us a very good transfer and audio options. Besides previews for other films (no trailer for Away from Her), we get a commentary track with Julie Christie, deleted scenes, and a PSA for the Alzheimer's Association featuring David Hyde Pierce, Peter Gallagher, and other actors.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I was looking forward to Julie Christie's commentary track, but frankly, the actress sounds a bit at sea here. Her remarks are sporadic, occasionally unfocused, and sometimes incomplete. She does have some interesting stories and observations, and her sensitivity and intelligence come through. She simply seems uncomfortable without someone else to interact with. It's a shame that Polley, who does commentary for the deleted scenes, wasn't brought in to sit with Christie. I think the two of them would have created a far more dynamic track.
As Grant and Fiona are driving to Meadowlake, the scene is scored with a Neil Young song, "Harvest Moon." A sobering thought sets in: This musician is both classic and contemporary, someone these two probably listened to when they were younger, 30 or 40 years ago. The rebels, the hippies, the Woodstock survivors, the Pepsi generation—these are our new senior citizens. If The Big Chill was the film that welcomed this generation to early middle age, then Away from Her might be the first mournful sounding of their valediction.
Away from Her is one of the finest films thus far of 2007. If there's any justice, Polley, Pinsent, and especially Christie will be remembered when award season rolls around later this year.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Julie Christie
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