Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent, Michael Murphy, Olympia Dukakis, Kristen Thomson, Wendy Crewson, Alberta Watson, Thomas Hauff, Katie Boland, Deanna Dezmari, Nina Dobrev, Grace Lynn Kung, Melanie Merkosky
Written by: Sarah Polley, based on a short story by Alice Munro
Directed by: Sarah Polley
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some strong language
Running Time: 110
Date: 09/11/2006
IMDB

Away from Her (2007)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Home, Bittersweet Home

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

At its most basic level, Away from Her is a disease-of-the-week flick that stares uncomfortably into the face of Alzheimer's disease and it's heartbreaking affect on everyone who comes into contact with it. But on a higher level, this is a graceful, astonishingly brave film from actress Sarah Polley (The Sweet Hereafter, Dawn of the Dead), making her directorial debut. Moreover, it's a thankless work that will face an uphill battle followed by almost certain oblivion.

Indeed, Away from Her sounds upsetting, and it does throw unpleasant human mortality right in our faces, but it's far from unwatchable. In fact, Polley (who is only 28) does the exact opposite of the typical disease-of-the-week offering by focusing first on characters, story, mood and rhythm, bringing up the disease only insofar as it affects these elements. (The typical movie flaunts the disease first and foremost, like a noble flag or a badge of honor.)

Polley adapts her movie from "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," a 1999 short story by the great Canadian writer Alice Munro, and Polley clearly gets inside that story, burrowing into Munro's touchingly brutal world. It's a meeting of two like minds, and anything that Polley switches or adds feels as if it comes with the Munro stamp of approval. (It's the opposite of this week's disappointing Jindabyne, which adapts a Raymond Carver story and adds several ridiculous outside elements to help "visualize" the story, but ultimately betrays it.)

If that's not enough, Polley tells her story entirely through the point of view of two elderly people, which is not exactly the formula for box office gold. Living in her grandparents' old house in rural, snowy Ontario, Fiona (Julie Christie) has begun to forget little things, and her husband, retired professor Grant (Gordon Pinsent) isn't sure how to take this. Eventually it's decided that she'll move into a rest home, with the thought that it's only a temporary measure. Unfortunately, this home has a policy forbidding any visitors during the first 30 days. When Grant finally turns up, Fiona has struck up a strong and tender bond with another patient, Aubrey (Michael Murphy), and doesn't seem to remember Grant.

Though it's a tough situation for Grant, Polley restrains her film from histrionics or despair. Instead Grant attempts to deal with his problem quietly, logically, talking with a helpful nurse (Kristen Thomson, in an impressively low-key performance) and Aubrey's wife Marian (Olympia Dukakis). The film's main fault is that, when Grant remembers their past together, Polley shows scratchy "flashbacks" (either shot on or doctored to look like old 8mm footage) with other actors playing the young couple. It's distracting, especially given that the young Julie Christie was practically unrivaled for sheer beauty.

Overall, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to compare Away from Her to the work of the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, who specialized in family dramas with a deep, cleansing, almost spiritual touch. In that, Polley is less interested in how many hankies her film rates than she is in touching the human soul and finding it damaged, yet still beautiful.

Liongate's 2007 DVD release is a fairly disappointing treatment for one of the best films of the year. For one thing, the studio has packaged the DVD as a cry for help against Alzheimer's, using guilt and treacle (there's a letter packaged inside with an envelope to send money), which is exactly what the movie doesn't do. Sarah Polley provides audio comments for some deleted scenes, but not a feature audio commentary track. Julie Christie provides that, and it's pretty sparse and fairly typical: "I was a big fan of the script," etc. Otherwise we get a collection of old trailers for Lionsgate releases of the past several years. Regardless, I would highly recommend watching the film, as well as reading the slim book that re-prints Alice Munro's short story, with an incredibly moving and revealing introduction by Polley.

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