Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Time Capsule Review: "Away From Her"

I recently stumbled upon some reviews I did back in college for the La Salle Collegian. In the interest of condensing all of my reviews on this site, I've decided to upload them sporadically throughout the next few weeks. I've chosen not to update them, mostly because I like the concept of reviews as time capsules for how we feel about movies at the time we first see them.

First up: a review of Away From Her from October of 2007. As readers of this blog may have deduced by my reviews of Take This Waltz and Stories We TellI’m a big fan of writer/director Sarah Polley, so this seems as good a review to start with as any.

Julie Christie received an Oscar nomination for her
work in Away From Her.
In her first venture behind the camera, Sarah Polley, an acclaimed Canadian actress recognizable for lead roles in Go and the Dawn of the Dead remake, didn't take the easy way out. Despite being just 28 years old, she took on a film about a man who learns to redefine what it is to love his Alzheimer's-striken wife when her fragmenting memory causes her to leave him and their 44-year marriage behind. A difficult task no doubt, but Polley rose to the challenge and crafted Away From Her, one of 2007’s best films.

Based on Alice Munro’s short story, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” Polley’s screenplay (yes, she also wrote the screenplay) is relatively faithful to its source material, making only slight additions to flesh out the characters. Building upon those additions, the perfectly chosen cast is so good that they are able to not only translate but enhance Polley’s levelheaded take on the topic.

After 44 years of marriage with Grant (Gordon Pinsent), Fiona (Julie Christie) has begun to lose her memory. She begins to forget little things at first, such as putting a frying pan in the freezer. However, as her condition worsens, she decides she must move to a care facility, despite Grant’s desire to care for her at home for as long as possible. She decides on Meadowlake, a nursing home with a strict policy that says a resident can have no visits or phone calls during their first 30 days.

After the 30 day spell is up, Grant travels to the nursing home to discover he has been all but forgotten and that his wife has forged a close bond with her fellow resident, Aubrey (Michael Murphy). Although he is jealous, Grant does not resent Aubrey, but is instead saddened that another man has replaced him. In confiding with a friendly nurse (Kristen Thomson), he wonders if the whole thing isn't a show, if his wife isn't punishing him for an infidelity in his past. However, after learning a great deal of patience, he proves his love for his wife by making the ultimate sacrifice.

The cast really sells the story. The Oscar buzz swirling around Christie is warranted. At 66, she’s as radiant, witty and nuanced as she’s ever been. Meanwhile, the relatively unknown Pinsent (an actor of note in his native Canada) anchors the film. Playing an insular man, he expertly epitomizes the guilt and grief that consume his character. Never ringing a false note, he delivers a resonate performance that sells the movie. It’s impossible to view his performance here and not want to see him on the screen again.

The supporting cast is also solid. Murphy isn't given much to do, but Thomson is a spunky live-wire who both judges Grant and sympathizes with him at the same time. Additionally, Olympia Dukakis impresses as Aubrey’s wife, an abrasive woman who nevertheless feels a desire to be close to someone.

In talking about her film with the New York Times, Polley indicated she believes our culture has a hard time with love after the first year: “It is difficult, and it is painful, and it is a letdown. [But] that first year is so much less profound than what happens when you’re actually left with each other and yourself in an honest way. It was interesting to me to make a film about what love looked like after life had gotten in the way, and what remained.”

On that count, Polley succeeds with flying colors by showing a flawed relationship that can adapt and change because of the years of love invested. In Grant’s final decision, Polley asserts a true affirmation of love that is both tenderly uplifting and utterly heart breaking. A