Movie review by Greg Carlson
“Away from Her,” based on a short story by Alice Munro, marks a strong directorial debut for performer Sarah Polley, who evidently picked up a thing or two when working for filmmakers like Atom Egoyan. Egoyan happens to serve as one of the executive producers of “Away from Her,” which carries several clear signs of his influence. Polley’s movie has received strong word of mouth, in particular for the casting of Julie Christie in one of the picture’s two major roles. The strongest performance, however, is given by Gordon Pinsent, as a husband who struggles to deal with his wife’s decline as a victim of Alzheimer’s.
The intimately contained scenario introduces the audience to Fiona and Grant Anderson, a couple whose forty-four year marriage begins to unravel when it becomes clear that Fiona suffers from a disease for which there is no cure. Polley efficiently sketches the comfortable routine that the Andersons have honed to comforting regularity. They cross-country ski, prepare meals, and sit by the fire as Grant reads Auden aloud to Fiona. Even as habits are carefully kept, Fiona cannot slow her decline. She places a just washed cooking pan in the refrigerator. She wanders in the cold until tracked down.
The movie becomes compelling once Fiona decides to separate from Grant and move into a residential health care facility, largely against the wishes of her husband. Policy dictates that new patients not see any relatives for the first month of transition, a fact that nearly causes Grant to back out of the plan. Polley manages to make the conflict palpable and wrenching, despite the mostly flat, slightly clinical portrayal of the cold administrator who rarely demonstrates any warmth toward Grant. Christie and Pinsent share several powerful scenes together, and their separation resonates with believable humanness. Requesting some private time prior to being admitted, Fiona reminds the staff that she and her husband have not been apart from one another for a month in their entire marriage.
As Fiona becomes accustomed to her new life, Polley develops a rhythm that switches the action between two central timelines. Additionally, Grant’s own memories of the first part of his relationship are glimpsed in grainy, stylized images. We discover that the Anderson marriage was far from perfect, and Grant even suspects that Fiona occasionally pretends to have lost her memories in order to be able to punish him for his infidelities. Grant develops a relationship with the wife of a patient to whom Fiona has become oddly attached. He also seeks some small comfort from conversations with one of Fiona’s nurses.
Polley develops these initially strange pairings of the sufferers with notable sympathy. Caregivers Grant and Marian (Olympia Dukakis) understand one another as their afflicted spouses also come to depend on and help one another cope. Some viewers might argue that the content of “Away from Her” might seem better suited to presentation on the small screen, but Polley’s almost complete avoidance of melodrama and histrionics laces the film with a subtleness that many will find arresting.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 5/21/07.