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AWAY FROM HER ****

By GUY FLATLEY


CAST: Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent, Olympia Dukakis, Michael Murphy, Kristen Thomson, Wendy Crewson, Alberta Watson

WRITER/DIRECTOR: Sarah Polley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Andersons have lingered over dinner in their cozy kitchen. Now Grant watches Fiona, his wife of 44 years, as she clears up, removing the frying pan from the stove top, walking over to the fridge, opening the door, hesitating, and then placing the pan in the freezer.

Later, when Fiona sees Grant transfer the pan to its proper place, she smiles playfully and says, “Don’t worry. I’m just losing my mind.”

Grant does not return the smile, for he knows the truth. There is nothing he can do to halt the illness that stalks his wife, reducing her to a dazed, tragic figure. Early on, Fiona herself had spent hours researching the Alzheimer’s literature, poring over the ghastly stats and symptoms and coming away with a precise picture of her future. She is aware that she will soon be forced to make a decision. She’ll have to be clear-headed enough to choose the right moment to close the door on the life she has shared with Grant. There will be no more side-by-side cross-country skiing adventures, no animated banter with friends over dinner, or intimate evenings spent alone together in the serenity of their Ontario country house. Fiona knows that tomorrow, or the day after, could bring with it the loss of her husband, her treasured memories, her very identity.

It is obvious that this adaptation of Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Who Came Over the Mountain” has not been tailored to entice teens to come on down to the local multiplex. The challenging but rewarding demands “Away From Her” imposes upon its audience are indeed rare--and particularly surprising when you consider that this emotional powerhouse marks the screenwriting and directorial debut of 28-year-old Sarah Polley, a Canadian actress best known for her splendid performance in Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter.”

With intelligence, vigor and fluidity, Polley employs unobtrusive flashbacks and flashforwards to probe the histories and complex motives of her characters--not only the aging couple at the center of the drama, but also the people on the periphery, among them the relentlessly cheerful, borderline fascistic director of Meadowbrook, the scary, state-of-the-art institution where Fiona’s psychological struggle turns bizarre; a mute, wheelchair-bound senior citizen who clings to Fiona for survival; and the man’s scheming, sexually needy wife, a woman who is tempted to strike a strange bargain with Grant that will result in a kind of peace for Fiona.

In the end, the success of this delicate enterprise depends largely on the strength of the actors playing Fiona and Grant. And that is where director Polley got especially lucky. Julie Christie has astonished us in movies ranging from “Darling” to “Petulia” to “Don't Look Now,” but she has never given a performance as nuanced and heartbreaking as the one she delivers here. Nor has Christie ever been so breathtakingly beautiful.

As for Gordon Pinsent, his portrait of a former college professor whose rage at the thought of parting with his wife is mingled with the fear that she may, on some level, be punishing him for a long-ago dalliance with a beautiful student, is a marvel of intensity and restraint.

The year is still young, but it is virtually impossible to imagine a list of Oscar nominees that does not include the names of Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent and Sarah Polley.