Monday, May 28, 2007

Not A Review Of “Away From Her

Release Date: May 4th, 2007

Director and Screenplay: Sarah Polley

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

I think I came across this movie first while reading a New York Times article about upcoming movies. It was not just the theme of the movie, but also who was behind it that caught my attention. The movie is directed by the Canadian actress Sarah Polley, who I first saw in Atom Egoyan’s critically acclaimed “The Sweet Hereafter” and I was amazed at her abilities as an actor. She is not yet 29 and this is her maiden directorial feature film and it is a very impressive debut indeed. I saw this movie this past weekend at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute cinema and I have to say the movie stayed with me for a long time after I had left the theater.

The story is based on Alice Munro’s short story The Bear Came Over the Mountain, which appeared in the New Yorker. Sarah found out about the story while returning from a film shoot in Iceland. In her interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air Sarah talks about the making of this movie. You can take a listen here.

The story in a nutshell..

If any of you have read about this movie, you may sometimes hear something akin to the term.. “sad” or “emotionally wrenching” thrown at it. It is certainly that but to think about the movie in simply those terms almost reduces it to one of those made for TV movie specials that are dealing with a debilitating disease. Not to knock any of those movies, but there are those and then there is “Away from her”.

It is a very intimate look at a couple Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie) in a long loving marriage that often seems calm through most of its 44 years. I use the term often seem calm for there are hints, at events from the past and the references to those are restrained, hinting at things being unlike a fairy tale.

The movie deals with the effects on both the protagonists when Fiona’s memory and her notion of herself as a person slowly starts to slip away after she is afflicted with Alzheimer’s. The two main characters are ably assisted by Michael Murphy in the role of a mostly mute fellow Alzheimer’s patient(Aubrey) that Fiona’s character bonds with and the amazing Olympia Dukakis who plays his wife Marian.

Alzheimer’s is a rare disease in the sense that it slowly takes away the people it afflicts, right in front of the eyes of their loved ones. Can you imagine entire lives being slowly but steadily erased lives that include entire chronicles of one’s family and friends? This is not an easy task for a director to handle and Sarah Polley does it very skillfully assisted by some very fine measured performances.

To me this was a movie about love, and how the nature of love changes if at all especially after decades have gone by. What if there are tribulations from the past under the surface, yet there are bonds as well, and how do they endure under pressures that would cause most of us to crumble if not fall apart. The movie examines love and its limitations and the notion of loyalty and how it gets redefined. It does so in a poignant, candid, intelligent and a heart breaking manner. The movie makes us think and it stays with us and there lies its success (in my opinion).

This film has some lovely background music and beautiful, snowy desolate locations from Southern Ontario (very picture postcard like and beautiful) where the cottage that Grant and Fiona live in is located.

I loved the literary references (W. H. Auden’s Letters from Iceland, Michael Ondaatje’s The Cinnamon Peeler) in the movie, and the fact both of them loved books.

We see small signs of Fiona’s gradual slipping away from the opening moments when while doing dishes, Fiona puts the washed pan in to the freezer, to moments of amazing lucidity, when during a walk through the Brant conservation area, she chances upon some skunk lillies and can recall details about them that make us and Grant wonder about her state.

I thought Gordon Pinsent's performance as Grant was restrained and understatedly brilliant. He is 77 and does not look that age at all. The gorgeous Julie Christie at 66 looks achingly beautiful and delivers a marvelous performance that is a mix of hope, fear, fragility and a sense of humor and I hope is remembered come award time. Olympia Dukakis’s Marian is a great portrayal of a spouse who has given up on the notion that there could be happiness or romance for her but yet she and Grant manage to find each other to form a relationship. The nature of this like some other things are left for us to interpret. If this was the filmmakers intent I like it, for rarely are things in life white and black.

The scenes between Grant and Marian as they go from their initial frostiness to their shared intimacy as their respective spouses fade away due to the disease are touching to watch. It is against this backdrop that we see the increasing affections between Fiona and Marian’s husband Aubrey at the nursing home which show the insularity of their world as their ties to their loved ones slip away.

Going back to Grant’s performance, there are scenes that absolutely blow you away. It is sort of hinted that Grant has been less than perfect as a husband and you watch him struggle as he tries to be the husband he has not been. Is his attempt at trying to bring Aubrey back to the nursing home to help Fiona deal with her depression that results from their separation (possibly as Marian cannot afford to keep him there anymore) or a truly selfless love knowing that it will not be returned?

The scene where Grant returns to the nursing home after Fiona is first admitted after a mandatory 30 day separation is emotional to watch, as he brings her flowers and she seems to have forgotten who he is. The transformation in him is conveyed very well by his eyes and his body language and not much has to be said by the actor.

The line from Fiona “Must all seem strange to you, but you’ll be surprised how soon you will get used to it” at the end of that encounter and other things in the movie made me wonder if she was having revenge on Grant for his indiscretion? I liked how there was ambiguity around this whole issue as well as the ending of the movie when Grant and Fiona hug each other, to me it almost seemed like she was back albeit briefly but she was back to who she was. It made me wonder about what had happened up to that point, and their lies the heart of this story, that there are no easy answers in this situation, this reality that is the world of those affected by this disease is just inescapable.

While reading up some more related material for this post, I came across this quote from the director Sarah Polley that I leave you with..

“we care much more about the first year or two of a relationship than we do about what happens as life happens — how people then find each other and how their love is expressed" as they grow older.”

This for me is easily this year's best film so far.


Aditi said...

sounds like a must see movie

Shruti said...

Seems intresting...

Sanjay said...

@Aditi.. Thank you. If you get a chance do watch it. :)

@Shruti.. Thanks.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Sanjay!

What a neat coincidence, I saw this movie on the weekend, too! Ofcourse, since this is an offering by Canada's darling Sarah Polley, "Away From Her" has been getting a LOT of publicity in Canada. I just had to go see what the fuss was about and man, I am so glad I did!

You've written a splendid review and captured the essence of the movie very well! Would you mind if I linked to your review on my blog?

And I hadn't realized the Alice Munro story appeared in the New you remember which issue that was? I would love to go back and read it.

Coming back to the movie,You could say the movie hit me in the gut...I didn't bawl...but I did shed quiet tears for this wonderful couple and their love affair that lasted 44 years!!!

I agree, Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent were brilliant! Christie possesses an ethereal beauty that I so envy ( I love how you describe her as achingly beautiful) and Gordon Pinsent, even at 77, can turn a woman's head. But that's not why they are brilliant, it's their beautiful performances which so moved and touched me.

Did you like the scenery? That is Ontario for you, pretty much! The nursing home was in a place called Kitchener...we have really good friends living there. And the cross country skiing? I do that every year while the girls have their downhill skiing lessons! :)

I enjoyed the literary references too! I need to go look up "The Cinnamon Peeler" by Michael Ondaatje.

Sanjay, thank you for this wonderful are right, this is a movie that stays with one long after one has seen and enjoyed it.

Sanjay said...

Hi there Lotus! What a coincidence indeed, the universe does work in strange ways.

I can see why Sarah Polley is Canada’s darling. I was very impressed with her in Egoyan’s “sweet hereafter”. I am so glad that you were able to watch the movie and enjoyed it as well.

Thank you for your kind words about the review, I am happy that you liked it.

Please feel free to add a link to the review on your blog. :-)

The Alice Munro short story appeared in the December 27, 1999 issue and as luck would have it the entire story is online too!!! Here is a link. I plan on reading the short story.

You mirror my feelings when you say the movie hit you in the gut.
Julie Christie is indeed beautiful and I haven't seen her in a while and my first reaction to her was wow.. what a beautiful woman.

Gordon Pinsent is 77? wow he carries his age well too, and you are right.. brilliant casting indeed and it is not about how they look, it is their absolutely brilliant performances that carry this movie.

Oh yes I did love the part of the country where they filmed this, a perfect picture postcard no? I have to say your neck of the woods is pretty. Also nothing like cross country skiing, it is supposed to be really good exercise as well.

The Cinnamon Peeler is a beautiful poem and is from a book of Ondaatje’s poems.

Again thank you for your kind words and yes this movie stayed with me long after.

patches said...

Sanjay, this is a wonderful, not a review. This sounds like a very moving film, and unfortunately one I can relate to. Thanks for posting the link to the short story, I will be looking for a quiet place to read later...

Carrie said...

I've been wanting to see this.

meno said...

This is a movie that i should see, but i don't know if i will be able to watch it. Thank you for that beautiful summary.

Asha said...

Well...I went to see the Pirates!!;D

Sounds interesting!May be when it's on DVD.Thanks for the review Sanjay.

Keshi said...

wow sounds like a hoot...gotta watch it.


Diana said...

I saw "The Sweet Hereafter" probably 10 years ago and it still haunts. As I recall, Polley did the music for that film, too, as a teen. It was amazing.

Sanjay said...

@Patches.. Thank you. Things hit home harder, I guess if there is a personal aspect to relate with. If you are interested there is a link to the original story in my comment upthread.

@Carrie. Thank you, I hopeyou enjoy it.

@Meno. I think you will be able to watch, it is also funny and makes you smile at a few places, but the overall tone of the movie is serious.

@Asha.. nothing wrong with the pirates. :) Hope youlike if if and when you see it on DVD.

@Keshi.. Thank you.

@Diana... you just used the right word for "the sweet hereafter". It does haunt me. Sarah Polley also sang a couple of the songs from the movie. Amazing talent indeed!

Anali said...

This is a great write up. I'd like to see this movie. I've had friends whose family members have had Alzheimers and it seems so painful to have someone you love often not know who you are and treat you badly, but all the while knowing that it's not their fault.

Also I'm intrigued by how relationships last and change over time. My parents have been married for almost 44 years and it's been interesting to see over time.

SS said...

Very beautifully written. Alzheimer's is terrifying ... and so sad.
Will definitely watch this one.

Btw, I watched 'Little Children' after reading your post on it.

priya said...

A good writeup and seems interesting.