Away From Her

2007, Movie, PG-13, 100 mins


Actress Sarah Polley makes her directorial debut with a surprisingly mature adaptation of Alice Munro's celebrated short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," a sad and sometimes funny tale of Alzheimer's, love and loss.

Retired university professor Grant Andersson (Gordon Pinsent) is enjoying his golden years in the snowy Ontario countryside, but lately a troubling change has come over Fiona (Julie Christie), his wife of 44 years. Fiona no longer remembers where a freshly washed-and-dried pan belongs (she puts it in the freezer), she wanders off during her daily cross-country ski and winds up confused and lost on a highway overpass, and while she can offer her witty take on macrame owls during a dinner party with friends, Fiona no longer recognizes the word "wine," even when she sees it printed on the bottle's label. Grant hopes the lapses in memory are simply signs of his wife being her own, unusual self, but Fiona knows better: She's in the early stages of Alzheimer's, and she's begun to lose her short-term memory. Her long-term recall, however, remains clear as a bell, and that's not entirely a blessing: Fiona can still vividly recall Grant's infidelities and the scandal involving a student that led to his early retirement. Fiona is determined to enter a residential care facility while she's still able to decide things for herself, and while Grant insists on looking on her upcoming stay at Meadowlake as a temporary arrangement, Fiona knows she won't ever be coming home. After checking into her cheery room on the facility's first floor — the ominous second is reserved for those long-term residents who have "progressed" to a more advanced stage — she bids Grant a sad goodbye for the next month: The rules of the facility dictate that new patients must forgo any contact with the outside world in order to facilitate a more rapid adjustment to their new surroundings. Kristy (Kristen Thomson), the upbeat head nurse, offers to help Grant through what will undoubtedly be a difficult 30 days, and when he is allowed to visit, she warns him that Fiona may have a little trouble remembering exactly who he is. What Grant is entirely unprepared for, however, is the fierce attachment Fiona has formed to fellow patient Aubrey (Michael Murphy). Aubrey has become the sole focus of Fiona's new life, and even though Grant visits her every day it becomes increasingly clear that she no longer knows him, and that Grant's persistent presence only confuses her. Grant must now face the painful fact that the woman he never wanted to be away from has moved far away from him.

Still one of the world's great beauties, Christie hits a lovely career high with a skillfully modulated performance: The moment when she tries to understand what Grant, now a cordial stranger, wants from her while simultaneously begging her husband to let her go is a marvelous piece of acting. For many, the film will no doubt serve as a fine introduction to Pinsent, a great but largely unknown actor who's been working for decades in his native Canada, and there's also a nice turn by Olympia Dukakis as Aubrey's wife, a woman hardened by her own struggle with her husband's illness. Not everything works — the moment when a fading Fiona feels compelled to rouse herself from her haze to comment on the war in Iraq is a real clunker — but the 27-year-old Polley reveals herself to be a true talent. She's an intelligent, sensitive filmmaker who clearly belongs on both sides of the camera. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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