First, a personal admission: us Canucks feel a strong sense of investment in the career of Sarah Polley, a talent we have (literally) witnessed grow into adulthood before our very own eyes. Transitioning from child star on the endearing "Road to Avonlea" series (loosely based upon the world created by Lucy Maud Montgomery) to aggressive political activist, Polley has continued to surprise us in her growth as an actor in terms of the richness (The Sweet Hereafter) and variety (2004's Dawn of the Dead) of her filmography. Now with Away from Her (2006), a full-length feature film based on the short fiction piece by Alice Munro ("The Bear Came Over the Mountain"), Sarah Polley amazes us once again, only this time she makes her directorial debut (she also authoured the screenplay adaptation.) As is already clear, the plot concerns the challenges and hardships that come along with the onset of Alzheimer's disease, but this is only one side to the complex story. Away from Her also deals with challenging questions regarding the stability of marriage in the long-run, whether love is synonymous with monogamy, and the murky politics of elderly health care. Yet Polley manages to sidestep any easy moralizing or preaching; what is most compelling about this film is its refusal to settle on stable conclusions. Rather, it seems to embrace the impossibility of making them at all - this is a story that one can imagine existing long after the credits have finished rolling. It is refreshing rather than frustrating to see a film understand its limitations; this is a strength as opposed to a failing.
The film's main players are Grant and Fiona, long-married partners who live a seemingly idyllic life in retired seclusion. Their comfortable routine is disturbed with Fiona's increasingly worrisome behaviour regarding her memory and sense of overall cognizance. It begins with misplaced objects here and there (a washed frying pan quietly deposited in the refrigerator) and elevates to concerns over her own safety (a cross-country skiing afternoon that suddenly results in her disappearance.) Much to Grant's deep reluctance, Fiona presses for her placement in a home care facility attuned to her special needs. Over her time at Meadowlake, her memory increasingly diminishes to a point where she no longer recognizes Grant as her husband, and instead forms a close connection with another in-care patient named Aubrey. How the disheartened Grant negotiates this unexpected turn of events is what forms the main thrust of the film's trajectory. Ultimately, Grant's priorities shift from awaiting in vain for a reawakening to realizations that are much more difficult and bittersweetly ironic. It will be spoiling nothing by suggesting that there are no "happy endings" offered in the normative sense of the term - this is not a film that offers easy, heart-warming resolutions.
Polley's approach has rightly been described as being reminiscent of the work of Atom Egoyan, who priorly directed her in The Sweet Hereafter, and also earns an executive producer credit here. Egoyan's best-received films are known for featuring evocative editing, which mostly enrich the narratives he tells as opposed to needlessly over-complicating them. In Away from Her, the first fifteen minutes or so are somewhat disorienting, which had me questioning the purpose of the time shifts and multiple cuts. However, as the story moves forward, the collapsing of linearity seems appropriate given that the film deals with the intertwining of past and present, as well as the unreliability of memory itself. My small criticisms are directed elsewhere, and are two-fold: Polley inserts several hazy and grainy "flashbacks" featuring Grant and Fiona in their early marriage years. These seemed distracting choices to me, although this may well be beneficial to other viewers wishing to grasp a fuller image of the couple's many years spent together. As well, another misgiving I have is how the practical and efficiency-focused Madeleine (Meadowlake's head figure, played by Wendy Crewson and not featured in the original text) is portrayed. She is made represent the more unfeeling aspects of elderly care, and her character mostly exists to cause further agitation for Grant's character. Indeed, my audience was quick to side with his dislike of her, even hissing whenever she made an unwelcome appearance on-screen.
As the film has made its rounds on the film festival circuit in the months prior to its North American-wide theatrical release, Julie Christie has been receiving consistent raves for her work as the slowly-deteriorating Fiona. The hype is, in a word, appropriate. There does not seem to be a moment in this performance that seems overplayed or falsely realized. Even in scenes that seem tailor-made for the Oscar telecast, Christie is frighteningly distant, stretching out moments of mental impairment so long that it actually becomes difficult to watch her. In one memorable scene, the lapse occurs during a dinner with friends; Fiona is about to serve her guests some wine when she suddenly is at a loss to comprehend why a bottle rests in her hands, and even as to what it contains within. At times, the gaps in her awareness are less evident, and Christie avoids the temptation to "fill in" the ambiguity. It is surprisingly not the film's strongest piece of acting though; that distinction is reserved for Gordon Pinsent, as Grant. Although patient and understanding for the most part, the character has a stubborn side as well; some of the film's most endearing moments are him pleading with Fiona to stay at home with him. One cannot help but feel sympathy as he returns day after day, hoping for a glimmer of recognition to surface in her eyes.
The dependable Olympia Dukakis is another player in the proceedings as Marian, Aubrey's no-nonsense wife. She has become hardened and disillusioned over time as a result of her husband's condition and her family's financial situation, yet is wanting for affection and intimacy all the same. Her early scenes with Pinsent over cups of coffee are some of the film's most thorny and unsettling, providing a sharp contrast to the affectionate words regularly shared between Grant and Fiona. Perhaps the most arresting supporting performance is turned in by Kristen Thompson, in a small role as the head nurse of the patients being cared for at Meadowlake. The turn reminded me instantly of Patricia Clarkson's in Far from Heaven; initially, her character seems like the sturdy and reassuring confidante to the film's lead player. But as she reappears over the course of the movie, it is no longer possible to take her character at face value - watch how she insensitively responds to Grant's question about co-habitation among patients. More unnerving in the scene in which she recalls an admission of infidelity on Grant's part, and takes him to task for it.
Despite the film's downer subject matter, it will perhaps surprise many to discover Away from Her's many amusing moments and its lack of histrionics. Some liners are actually laugh-aloud witty, and its ongoing refusal to exploit Fiona's illness for easy tears is truly admirable. There are undoubtedly devastating moments, but Polley is primarily interested in crafting an intricate love story as opposed to a tragedy (Alice Munro is also to be credited for providing ace source material in the first place.) Away from Her draws upon the lives of the sick, the elderly and the retired, giving their experiences of sex, romance and sadness full respect and weight. The film is compassionate and respectful towards its characters, as opposed to feeling the need to patronize and caricature them; the result is heartening to say the least. With her eye for figurative imagery and her admiration for her actors, Sarah Polley adds another feather in her swelling cap of many achievements. It is my hope - as a Canadian as well as a film lover - that this is not the last we see of her as a director. A-