The act of being forgotten becomes pop-Bergman fair in Sarah Polley
's Away from Her. If Polley's name rings a few bells, its because she was a rather prominent ingénue of independent cinema in the early '00s, her range swinging from Doug Liman's rollicking Go to Atom Egoyan's solemn, sublime The Sweet Hereafter. Here, director Egoyan serves as executive producer and gives the floor to Polley as she translates Alice Munro's short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" to the screen.
Fiona (Julie Christie
) has begun to lose her memory as an effect of Alzheimer's. Grant (Gordon Pinsent
), her husband, can only sigh heavily as he watches her slip away; at one point, she puts a frying pan in the freezer. Begrudgingly, Grant signs Fiona into a home for people with Alzheimer's and other diseases incurred through aging. There's a catch: He can't see her for a month, allowing her to settle in without any debilitations. He returns to find Fiona's memory thickly veiled, only remembering him as a figure without nuance. It also happens that Fiona has become cozy with a catatonic, wheelchair-bound man named Aubrey (Michael Murphy
). While attempting to get his wife to remember him, Grant makes time to visit with Aubrey's wife Marian (a fantastic Olympia Dukakis
) to see what her side is like. Article continues below
Visually, Polley has a perceptive, if mundane, eye for composition and fluidity. The house, the rest home, and even the frozen-over tundra that Fiona skis on have the wrapped feeling of a cocoon, giving an insular tone to the piece. In narrative terms, however, the erstwhile actress doesn't take any chances and sticks directly to Grant's state of mind. This decision leaves the film in borderline Hallmark territory, but the lack of total catharsis gives the film a more resonant feeling that keeps the film rooted. The restrained mood causes muted emotions, allowing for all the characters to be explored with subtlety and grace.
Like any rabid fan, Polley loves her source material and it comes out as a healthy boost to the film's veneer but a large detriment to thematic content. Munro's language, sometimes copied verbatim, works very well in fiction but becomes awkward in the film's realistic syntax. But the poetic duck-and-weave keeps the story from veering off into sentimentality. Unfortunately, the director's obvious connection to the story and its flow hurts the script ultimately because there's a strong want to keep the story's vernacular onscreen when a script of this sort calls for more barren language.
However, you've got to hand it to Polley in the end. Her work with actors is assured and her love for her source, though wounding here, shows an allegiance to mood and atmosphere. All the actors, Pinsent especially, give stark, aware performances that actually curve out the rougher angles in the script. In its wobbly whole, Away from Her lingers as a hazy, blurry account of fading moments.