DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: AWAY FROM HER

Monday 14 May 2007


Away From Her (2007) dir. Sarah Polley
Starring: Gordon Pinsent, Julie Christie


Sarah Polley’s feature film debut is a triumph. A sensitive and emotional film that turns out to be a real heartbreaker.

Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie) are 40 years into a marriage, not an easy marriage, but one that has stuck together through some rough times. But Fiona has entered the initial phases of Alzheimer’s disease, a degenerative affliction of the brain that cause loses in short term and then long term memory. Eventually the afflicted will revert to a child-like state without any memories of the past. The opening scene is simple but so sad. Fiona and Grant are in the kitchen of their winter cottage after a lovely day of skiing. They come home for dinner, and as Fiona finishes the dishes she places the cleaned and dried frying pan in the freezer, then walks away. Gordon is left there stunned – the realization of what’s to come reads so well on his expressively sad face.

Thus begins the slow disintegration of Fiona’s memories and the disappearance of their relationship. Polley’s writing is smart and realistic, instead of using a cookie cutter formula which we would see in a Hollywood multiplex film (which Fiona, herself, trashes in a wonderfully humourous moment). Fiona and Grant, in anticipation of her eventual demise try to learn as much as they can about the disease. And when it comes to moving Fiona into the caregiver home, it’s Fiona who instigates the action. Although Grant despises the home Fiona’s about to go into, he knows he can’t make her better and let’s her go. For the first 30 days she must be alone in the home without visitors. This is painful for Grant, for when he eventually sees her again, she is a different person. She recognizes Grant, but it’s vacant, the 40 years of memories aren’t there, and he becomes just an acquaintance.

Meanwhile, the film uses a flash-forward device, a subplot between Grant and another woman, Marian (Olympia Dukakis), whose husband is also in the home. They are brought together for a reason I won’t reveal here, but one which makes the story that much more tragic and poignant for both Grant and the viewer. Grant’s history as a former philanderer comes back to haunt him and he’s forced to deal with the mistakes he’s made in the past.

Gordon Pinsent is a star in the film – a revelation. After almost 50 years of Canadian movies and television, he has scored the best role of his career. His grizzled face expresses so much sadness without resorting to customary waterworks or scenes or over-dramatized emotions. Julie Christie is also terrific, in what is so far a shoe-in for 2007’s Oscars (my fingers are crossed for Pinsent too). In the latter stages of her illness, when her former self is completely departed, in her close-ups we still can see a glint of her true love for Grant. And even as a silver-haired elder, Christie is still ravishing.

Jonathan Goldsmith’s organic music sets the perfect tone for the film. A simple melancholy mood piece created with guitars, drums and piano. In fact, I’m reminded of Daniel Lanois’ sumptuous score for “Sling Blade”. Luc Montpillier’s photography is pitch perfect and David Wharnsby’s editing creates a complex emotional patchwork using just enough subtle flashbacks, and visual foreshadowing, without pushing the film into melodrama. There are very brief flashbacks to Fiona and Grant as younger people, and Polley and Wharnsby admirably resist the temptation of using the customary device of showing the young people in love to create more sympathy in the present. Instead, Pinsent’s longing close-ups say everything that could be said in any lame flashback.

The ending is beautiful and sweet, and I’ve never been a K.D. Lang fan, but her rendition of Neil Young’s “Helpless” is the perfect ending to a near perfect film. Enjoy.

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