Away From Her
Directed by Sarah Polley. Starring Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent. Rated PG. Opens Friday, May 4, at the Cinemark Tinseltown and the Park Theatre
In Away From Her, a deeply affecting portrait of marriage, Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent go beyond acting to explore the bitter challenges of age and memory. They play Fiona and Grant, Ontario academics enjoying the fruits of semiretirement when they start to notice that she's getting a little confused at times. When Fiona puts a frying pan in the freezer, they decide to have her checked out, and soon she checks into a home for people with Alzheimer's disease.
That sounds a little dour, for sure, but it's also where the movie comes to life, in its restless examination of the couple's long-set dynamics, and how they got that way. In her feature debut, writer-director Sarah Polley interpolates an Alice Munro story ("The Bear Came Over the Mountain") by adding flashbacks from earlier in the marriage and fleshing out current events with side characters who comment on the action.
It turns out that Grant, a long-time university professor, was a bit of a romantic dabbler in his younger days, and now he begins to wonder if his wife isn't paying him back, in some convoluted way, for his indiscretions. He grows particularly concerned when she begins virtually ignoring his daily visits in favour of spending every free minute with a needy, wheelchair-bound inmate (Michael Murphy, excellent without saying a word).
Gordon muses over this situation with a sympathetic, if cynical, young nurse (Kristen Thomson) who has already seen it all, and he can't get a word of uncanned patter from the cheerful director of the home (Wendy Crewson). Eventually, he takes his concerns to the rival's wife, played beautifully by a tightly wound Olympia Dukakis, and they form an uneasy alliance on several levels. In the end, though, the journey isn't about understanding Fiona's erratic actions but accepting them.
This carefully wrought film is less about privations toward the end of life, or marriage, than it is about the humility required to fully embrace either. And by the ambiguous, quietly upbeat conclusion of Away From Her (the title refers to where Gordon never wanted to be), you realize that you are glad to have met the people on-screen–which is, most simply put, how they feel about each other.