4 stars (out of four)
Bergmanesque and beautiful, set in a wintry landscape fitfully lit by one woman's flickering awareness and one man's long-term, stubborn love, "Away from Her" is one of the most remarkable and moving love stories the movies have recently given us. Made with jewel-like craft and deep human understanding, it is based on Alice Munro's poignant story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," about a long-married academic couple threatened by the wife's approaching Alzheimer's disease. Strikingly visualized and flawlessly acted by Julie Christie, Olympia Dukakis, Gordon Pinsent and the rest of the cast, it's been adapted with uncommon brilliance by actress and first-time feature director Sarah Polley.
The movie seems first to be another Alzheimer's drama in the vein of "Iris," with Judi Dench, and Bille August's grievously neglected "A Song for Martin." It stars Christie (still a great camera subject at 66) as brainy Iceland native Fiona, wed for 44 years to an occasionally philandering, now retired college professor, Grant (Pinsent), and faced with sporadic but notable memory loss. (She forgets words like "wine.") Fiona, against Grant's wishes, decides to check herself into a nursing home. At this point I was prepared for a drama of the slow, sad spectacle of the ravages of a loved one's inexorable disease. Yet so good was the acting and direction, I forgave the familiarity.
Munro's story, though, is full of surprises. When Grant comes back to Meadowvale after an enforced 30-day absence, heart full of love and holding a bouquet, he finds that Fiona has not only seemingly forgotten him but has developed a crush on fellow patient Aubrey (Michael Murphy), a sullen, silent chap, jealous of her every move. No matter what Grant tries to do, Fiona and Aubrey resist--something observed sympathetically but unhelpfully by a good-hearted nurse (Kristen Thompson). The triangle becomes more complex when Grant visits Aubrey's wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis at her tartest and earthiest), and begins conceiving a plot. What happens next seems to follow the story's Chekhovian path before the plot springs a stunning surprise.
"Away from Her" is clearly one of the best English-language films of the year; Polley's gifts, at 28, seem huge. A longtime critics' darling, she was the pensive accident victim Nicole in Atom Egoyan's "The Sweet Hereafter"--and she deliberately gave away an almost surefire major Hollywood career by winning and then declining (to Kate Hudson's good fortune) the star-making part of Penny Lane in "Almost Famous."
You could never guess from all that how good a filmmaker she is here. The actors in "Away from Her" may be factors in the next Oscar race, and they deserve to be--especially Christie, who gives one of the performances of her career. Christie emphasizes the vibrant woman still there underneath, the scraps of brilliance that remain, filling her once-faithless husband with such anguish. Pinsent, by contrast, plays an egotistical, pleasure-loving and self-absorbed intellectual who sees his world being shattered and must try to be and stay unselfish with each painful new turn. Dukakis provides just the right counterpoint, providing salty, acidic wisecracks by a woman with few illusions.
You may feel put off by the subject. Don't. The spectacle of love, and of light in darkness, can be a healing one, and it is here. In the hands of this consummate filmmaker and her perfect cast, it's like a light in darkness, a small beacon in an immensity of cold anxiety, summoning us to radiance.
'Away From Her'
Directed and written by Sarah Polley; based on the short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" by Alice Munro; photographed by Luc Montpellier; edited by David Wharnsby; music by Jonathan Goldsmith; production design by Kathleen Climie; produced by Daniel Iron, Simone Erdl, Jennifer Weiss. A Lionsgate release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:50. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some strong language).
Fiona - Julie Christie
Grant - Gordon Pinsent
Marian - Olympia Dukakis
Kristy - Kristen Thompson
Aubrey - Michael Murphy
Madeleine - Wendy CrewsonCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun