From the Archive: Away From Her

As I (and other equally devoted members of my household) make the requisite mad dash through elusive year-end features to make certain we have a complete accounting of all the Oscar-nominated fare, at least in the major categories, I finally caught up with the presumed victor in the Best Actress in a Leading Role category. I’ll get to a review of that soon enough (or maybe not so soon as I suddenly have an abundance of things to write about and only so many daily posts to work with), but it seemed timely to look back at another film that covered similar ground and also featured a strong lead performance by a duly revered actress.

Sarah Polley has made about three-quarters of a great film with her directorial debut Away From Her. Adapting an Alice Munro short story, the twenty-eight year old actress crafts a compelling story built upon simple, prolonged heartbreak. Julie Christie plays a woman who is coming to terms with the encroaching effects of Alzheimer’s disease as her spouse struggles even more with the thought of her intellect and emotions drifting away. The subject matter holds inherent dangers. This could easily swerve into TV movie disease-of-the-week hysterics or the calculated maudlin manipulation of the sort that envelops the average Hollywood weeper. Instead, Polley brings a becoming patience to her filmmaking. She finds the piercing pain in the little details, presented carefully. The bulk of the film is so natural, so honest, so real that it feels as much like eavesdropping as movie-watching.

In this approach, Polley also brings a potent universality to the film. The particulars of Alzheimer’s are all there, but there is a broad resonance to the hard decisions the main characters must make. When Christie’s ailment progresses to the point that she must enter an assisted living facility, the wrenching process could apply to any elderly couple the must struggle with a similar choice for whatever reason. And as Christie slips further into the recesses of her own wounded mind, the palpable sense of loss is applicable to anyone who has lived through a dissolution of a relationship that they themselves weren’t ready to release. The quiet agony of her husband, played with marvelous dignity and restraint by Gordon Pinsent, is nearly unbearable.

The film loses some potency through its final act as multiple plot complexities become overwhelming. Very quickly, that becoming natural quality gives way, and the heavy orchestration of an author’s hand becomes too apparent (including one throwaway moment that drags political commentary into the film that is so out of place that it should have been excises altogether). Relationships shift and individual’s perceptiveness alter in ways clearly meant to add power to the closing moments. Instead, the opposite occurs. The film begins to feel artificial and the actor’s are left to wring whatever truth they can from the false notes of the script.

Luckily, these performers are well up to that task. Pinsent and Christie are an exquisite tandem, incisively playing the soft comfort of a couple married for over forty years. They show the assurance of deep knowledge of each other but also acknowledge the real fragility of affection. Naturally, Christie has a few key moments to play, portraying the effects of the illness. She forgoes showiness in favor of subtle snapshots of the confused straining of a person who’s only certainty is that there are things she should know that are plainly out of her mental reach. Despite any attempts to bring home a big ending, it is those sorts of little moments, shot and played with a valiant openness, that give Away From Her its resonance.