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Away from Her

Spare and poignantly bittersweet, Sarah Polley's wrenching romantic drama Away From Her delves into the painful effects of Alzheimer's disease.


Former mythology professor Grant (Gordon Pinsent) has been in love with--and married to--gorgeous, spirited Fiona (a radiant Julie Christie) for more than 40 years. After some turbulence earlier in their marriage (Grant wasn't always as faithful as he is now), they've spent the last two decades in their own private haven, a rustic Canadian cottage that lends itself to cross-country ski treks and intimate dinners. But their idyll is shattered when Fiona starts forgetting simple things--like what ''wine'' is called; they soon discover she's suffering from early onset Alzheimer's. Against Grant's desperate protests, Fiona checks into a retirement facility called Meadowlands. There, as Grant watches from the sidelines, heartbroken, she develops feelings for a fellow patient, Aubrey (Michael Murphy). Ultimately, Grant must figure out the best way to prove his love.


Away From Her is the kind of movie that succeeds or fails almost wholly on the strength of its cast--happily, in this case it's the former. Christie is all elegant grace as Fiona, from her beautiful mane of white hair to her impeccable sense of style. But she's impulsive and approachable, too, with an earthiness that grounds her. Her sense of fun and joy is clear from the sparkle in her eyes--when that sparkle starts to dim, the audience, like Grant, mourns its loss. As Grant, Pinsent is both stoic and achingly vulnerable; he can't bear watching Fiona slip away, but he also can't bring himself to cause her any more pain. In the supporting cast, Kristen Thomson is refreshingly forthright as Kristy, the Meadowlands nurse who always tells Grant the truth, and Olympia Dukakis is believably brassy as Aubrey's wife, Marian, who's not quite ready to give up on life.


Sarah Polley has spent plenty of hours in front of the camera, but Away From Her marks the Canadian actress' feature directorial debut. She's obviously learned a lot from the talented filmmakers she's worked with, particularly Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter), whose aesthetic is similarly spare and minimalistic. Although her long, lingering close-ups (Christie's skin is remarkably clear; Pinsent is quite craggy) occasionally feel indulgent, Polley has a knack for using light and landscape to evoke the essence of her subject matter: love, marriage, and loss. It helps that she had good source material to work from; the movie is based on acclaimed author Alice Munro's short story ''The Bear Came Over the Mountain.'' For a first-time feature, Away From Her is impressively assured, tackling tough topics with sensitivity, empathy, and the confidence of experience.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 1/2 stars.