Sunday, October 28, 2007

Away From Her

Forget the hype about Sofia Coppola: Sarah Polley, the 28-year-old writer-director of Away From Her, is the real deal. Sure, Coppola has a precocious sense of style, but her gaze never travels far from the general vicinity of her bellybutton. Her movies all have the same non-plot: Pretty young things nearly drown in ennui, trapped in a world that Just Doesn’t Get It.

Like Coppola, Polley comes from an artistic family and has been acting since childhood and directing since she was a young adult, starting with short films (Away From Her is her first feature). But Polley’s saucer eyes soak in everything around her. For this movie, the actress chose to adapt a short story by fellow Canadian Alice Munro about a couple who have been married for 50 years, whose relationship changes drastically after the wife develops Alzheimer’s disease.

Away From Her is the kind of quiet character study that generally gets shouldered aside by flashier stuff, so it’s no surprise that it didn’t stay long in theaters this spring. But it’s one of the best movies I saw this year, so it’s worth adding to your Netflix queue if you missed it the first time around.

Polley was not yet married when she first read Munro’s story, but an apparently rich capacity for empathy – not to mention what filmmaker Atom Egoyan, who directed her in The Sweet Hereafter, has referred to as her “alarming maturity” – drew her to the story. "I think we have a really hard time culturally with what happens to love after the first year [of marriage]," she told the New York Times. “It is difficult and it is painful and it is a letdown. It was interesting to me to make a film about what love looked like after life had gotten in the way, and what remained."

In Munro’s story, Grant, a retired professor, must adjust to playing a severely diminished role in the life of his wife, Fiona, after she moves into an Alzheimer’s facility. Within a month, Fiona has forgotten virtually everything about Grant and bonded with a man in the facility, tending to him as if he were her husband and Grant a curiously persistent suitor who can’t take a hint. Polley captures Fiona’s elusive grace, Grant’s sorrow and regret, their potent love for one another, and the increasing delicacy with which they treat each other, falling back on manners when all else fails.

She’s aided by a brilliant cast. Polley says she saw Julie Christie in the part from the time she first read the story, and it’s easy to see why, though it took months for her to persuade the reluctant actress to play the part. Christie’s soulful beauty and her sense of perpetually keeping something of herself in reserve embody Fiona, whose husband describes her as “direct and vague … sweet and ironic.”

Christie is matched by Gordon Pinsent, a renowned Canadian actor whose Grant is dignified and devoted, still trailing whiffs of the charm he once exuded but dulled down a bit by age and sadness. The rest of the cast is also fine, especially Michael Murphy as Aubrey, Fiona’s wordless yet demanding new love; Olympia Dukakis as his bitter, brusque wife; and Kristen Thomson as Kristy, the sympathetic young nurse who helps Grant come to terms with the changes in Fiona.

Polley augments the story to fill out two hours of film. She fleshes out the daily life of the facility, adding an officious administrator and further exploring the character of Kristy. She also shows Fiona thinking about Grant’s decades-old affairs, though those memories haunt only Grant in the story. Polley’s wry sense of humor and eye for idiosyncratic behavior rhyme with Munro’s, making the new material blend in seamlessly.

Cinematographer Luc Montpellier gives the story a steely beauty that matches both the tone of Fiona and Grant’s long marriage and the feel of the Canadian winter, “to bathe Fiona’s and Grant’s relationship with cool winter source light and stay away from warm, romantic clich├ęs,” as he puts it.

In one recurring image, Fiona leaves Grant and their home on her cross-country skis, heading out on a blue winter evening. Christie’s bright eyes, still-sharp cheekbones, silver hair and athletic body are lovely to watch against the trackless snow, but this is more than just a pretty picture. It’s a haunting image, vibrant with significance, that contains the whole ache and arc of Fiona and Grant’s near-lifelong partnership.

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