For moviegoers, the thought of “losing” Julie Christie might simply be too much to bear. That’s why Sarah Polley‘s got a devastating hook in her crystalline feature debut “Away from Her“: as Christie’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted Fiona slowly slips away from her husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent), she’s also gradually fading from us, viewers, lovers of her vivaciousness, her glamour that never overshadowed her wisdom. In fact, it’s the very mystery of Julie Christie – that actress who so enchanted moviegoers in the Sixties and Seventies with her delicately modulated brand of lush femininity and strong independence – that functions as “Away from Her”‘s radiating nucleus; she projects an otherworldly shrewdness even as bits of her memory disappear, and as a result we refuse to accept her mental deterioration. She fades yet remains articulate; it’s a cruel joke of nature.
The function of remembrance is an enigma in “Away from Her,” which plays like an Alain Resnais film writ small and domestic. In adapting Alice Munro‘s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” Sarah Polley wisely expands the themes of personal memory to include collective memory, as well; though it’s essentially a love story, “Away from Her” is grounded in the mechanics of human interaction, thought, repression, denial, and acceptance. It’s also firmly in our world: At a crucial moment, when Fiona, already in advanced stages of Alzheimer’s, watches footage on the nightly news from Iraq, she quietly murmurs: “How could they forget Vietnam?” It’s a terribly poignant moment, connecting their world to ours and exposing memory as, at its core, selective.
Introduced cross-country skiing through wide expanses of snow toward home, the long-married Fiona and Grant are entering their autumn years and pushing ahead, even as they both know that her sickness will inevitably estrange them from one another. Fiona’s self-awareness of her imminent decay, her sudden recognition of the physical and the mental diverging from one another (as evidenced when she grips a wine bottle and stares at it as if for the first and last time), marks the film’s early scenes, set in the couple’s cozy winter lodge. The familiarity of that setting soon gives way to the eerily cheery, anonymous environs of the rest home where she must go for proper care. Though the dichotomies of these two settings are central to the film, Polley wisely never idealizes the former nor demonizes the latter, instead illustrating the adjustments people must make in their lives when their bodies and time betray them.
And even as both body and time evaporate in the film (months go by in the blink of an eye, as Polley compresses her chronology to brilliantly confounding effect), Fiona and Grant remain immobile. If Christie’s graying gorgeousness and cunning complexity provides the film’s ethereality, then Pinsent’s unwavering love anchors it in place: Pinsent, a more recognizable name in Canada, has a gentle control and physical presence comparable to that of Erland Josephson (“Scenes from a Marriage“). It’s their connection, finely wrought by Polley’s empathy and grace, which earns the film its final tears.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor at the Criterion Collection.]