Thursday, September 4, 2008

Film Review: Away from Her

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Away from Her, writer-director Sarah Polley's adaptation of the Alice Munro short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," is a remarkable debut feature. It's a film that, unseen, one approaches with trepidation. The original story (featured in Munro's 2001 collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage) is constructed around the experiences of an elderly man whose wife has developed Alzheimer's. But Munro isn't especially interested in the material's dramatic possibilities; she uses it to create a meditation on how, regardless of our idealistic notions of love, romantic relationships are always rooted in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. It's a contemplative, extremely literary piece, and Munro's effects are far too abstract for a filmmaker to even consider trying to translate successfully. In order for the story material to work onscreen, the filmmaker would have to focus on its melodramatic aspects, and the potential for an adaptation to degenerate into a disease-of-the-week movie is enormous. But Polley is canny enough to transcend the material's pitfalls. She keeps the histrionics to a minimum, and the extraordinary sophistication she shows as a scenarist and filmmaker allow her to pull the film off.

The story's two main characters are Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie), a retired couple living in a lakefront house in the Canadian countryside. As the film begins, we see Fiona begin to show the early stages of Alzheimer's. It gradually gets worse and worse. She goes from putting a skillet in the freezer to walking aimlessly through the nearby town, initially unable to recognize Grant after he comes looking for her. For her safety, they decide to admit her to a local upscale nursing home, but there's one catch: once she's admitted, Grant will not be allowed to visit her for 30 days. He grudgingly accepts, but once his month-long banishment ends, he returns to the home to find that Fiona no longer remembers him. Further, she has developed a close relationship with a mute, wheelchair-bound man named Aubrey (Michael Murphy). Grant's dedication to her turns him into an unhappy daily observer of the new relationship. After Aubrey's wife (Olympia Dukakis) decides to take her husband back home, Grant is faced with a horrible dilemma: either reintroduce Aubrey into Fiona's life, or watch her mourning for their relationship destroy her mind completely.

Sarah Polley is best known as an actress. Her most notable role is probably the teenage bus-accident survivor in Atom Egoyan's adaptation of Russell Banks' The Sweet Hereafter. Egoyan is listed as an executive producer of Away from Her, and Polley appears to have been following his artistic lead in making the film. The style is remarkably similar to that of The Sweet Hereafter: the flashback structure, the carefully composed photography, and the even, deliberate pacing. She and cinematographer Luc Montpellier have put together a great-looking movie. The imagery has a remarkable graphic fluency, and it's never static or emptily pictorial. Everything in the movie is carefully thought out in terms of effect. She even brings off such Munro flourishes as the skunk lilies metaphor and the recurring motif of the street sign for a conservatory. That said, one never sees Polley coasting on Munro's work. She gives the story a structure that's distinct from the prose version, and she considerably fleshes out the narrative with material of her own. Everything, though, manages to feel all of a piece.

Gordon Pinsent carries the emotional weight of the movie, and he brings it off with aplomb. His Grant has a quality one sees in more than a few older men: a devil-may-care attitude that suggests there's a little boy in him that's never grown up. Pinsent has his best moment when he smartmouths a teenage girl visiting the home when she mistakes him for one of the residents. Grant used to be a college professor, and Pinsent makes one immediately see that he'd be popular with his students; he can both identify and parry with them. But Pinsent also makes one feel the depth of Grant's love and commitment to Fiona, including both his concern and his determination to do what's right by her. He is the focus of every one of the film's scenes, and his presence is never anything but welcome. Pinsent captures the contradictions in the role and delivers a beautifully realized characterization.

Julie Christie's widely fĂȘted performance earns its plaudits. No actress has ever aged as beautifully as Christie has onscreen, and it may be that her visible age is what makes her look so extraordinary--there's a poignance in seeing those remarkable features and watching the youth slip away. That quality makes her a perfect choice to play Fiona, and she builds the performance from her other natural attributes. The key element in her characterization is her poise. There's an elegance to Fiona at all times, and Christie uses it to heighten the discords of the character's panic and fear when she realizes she's in a situation where her memory brutally fails her. When Fiona is asked what she sees in Aubrey, she replies, "He doesn't confuse me." Christie makes you feel both Fiona's sense of comfort and the terror that feeds it. Her emotional shifts are remarkably delicate and fluid as well. No word in the critical lexicon is more abused than "lyrical," and I do what I can to avoid it, but no other word better captures the grace and heartbreaking beauty of Julie Christie's performance.

The film has flaws. Grant's musings on past extramarital affairs are a key part of Munro's original story, but they're the hardest part of the story to do justice to. Spelling the circumstances out to the degree Munro does would just bog the film down. Polley apparently recognized the problem, and she jettisons the details--references to the infidelities are generally quite oblique. But she also appears to recognize the thematic importance of the affairs, so she tries to compensate with new material that makes clumsy reference to them. Christie makes a confrontational scene on the way to the nursing home work, but I don't think anything could have saved the ugly scene where the home's head nurse jumps to conclusions about Grant and tells him off. Munro implies that Grant begins an affair with another woman after Fiona moves to the nursing home, but Polley makes it explicit, and unlike Munro, she can't make the relationship make sense. In the original story, Munro makes it clear that there's a commonality of background that attracts Grant to the woman. He sees himself having married someone like her if his life had taken a different direction when he was younger. But in the film the two initially have nothing but antipathy for each other, and beyond a pathetic mutual neediness, there's nothing that brings them together. There are also some grotesque bits involving the other nursing home residents in the latter sections of the film. The worst involves a former sports announcer who walks down a corridor giving a play-by-play on another character's emotional distress.

But these complaints are quibbles. Sarah Polley is a remarkable filmmaking talent. The picture has been made with an extraordinary precision, but every emotion on the screen seems freshly felt. She does a wonderful job of orchestrating the story material, the actors, and her visual treatment. She makes the story her own, and the film is a superb complement to the work that inspired it.

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