It is difficult to write a review of actress’s Sarah Polley’s directorial debut Away From Her. It is certainly a film that makes its viewer extensively think about it after seeing it, and is also one that easily sparks conversation through its subtly-enforced, but poignant message. Like many actors who turn to directing (Mel Gibson, Andy Garcia are a few recent examples), Polley has chosen to tackle a subject that is seemingly close to her heart. This is of course only a guess, since neither is the film a totally original creation of hers (it is based on a short story by author Alice Munro), nor has she admitted to knowing or being related to anyone suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, at least not to my knowledge. Still, it is evident from the script itself, which she wrote solo, and the focused direction on the technical side of things, that this is an important project for her.
Right off the bat, this looks to be a planned-out film. Polley doesn’t improvise much and the very first scene of the film gives away the two main characters’ story arcs through a series of images. It is something that the viewer probably will not realize until the film’s end credits start rolling, but it is definitely there and clearly demonstrates one of the film’s many positives – its terrific narrative structure. It is truly special when a film’s script is so well thought out beforehand, because so many of today’s films are being written whilst they are being filmed and that can frequently cause them to be episodic in nature, or at best can be seen as missed opportunities to include subtle Shyamalan-style hints as to where the story will lead.
The film tells of Grant (Gordon Pinsent), the husband of Fiona (Julie Christie) who happens to be institutionalized because of her condition. She has Alzheimer’s and the disease’s slow take over cause her and Grant to distance themselves from each other, as does Fiona’s realization about Grant’s tainted past. Grant’s efforts to regain the closeness of the relationship he had with his life are also challenged by the fact that she has grown intimately close to a wheelchair-bound mute by the name of Aubrey (Michael Murphy). Grant’s efforts are solely verbal, while what they are countering is at times physical in nature. The film is talkative but so well done that it is at times exciting in its own way, as I frequently found myself absorbed in the conversations which include some lines that resonate powerfully in my mind weeks after seeing the film.
Sarah Polley’s still camera and her direct angles make this an actors’ movie. It is too bad that Polley doesn’t utilize imagery as she does in the first scene of the film that often, because her reliance on the characters to actually send the message of the film may come-off as talking down to the audience. And while the film dodges that bullet, because it refrains from accusations and politics related to Alzheimer’s, it does not leave much to be interpreted. It just lays out its thematic goals for the audience in clear view and lets the audience do with them what they wish. But that is a relatively small quibble, because what the film does accomplish, as obvious as that accomplishment may be, is amazing. The film affects us in so many different ways. We feel the pain, the hurt, and the sorrow associated with these people who are struck by a horrible disease, but we feel other, unexpected things too. In many spots the film is joyful and even optimistic and when looking back on it, I realize that while it is a hard-hitting drama, it is not a tragedy and leaves the viewer in a bittersweet mood.
The acting in this film is amazing. Julie Christie is heartbreaking, but determined and her performance is the best she’s had in years. Same goes for Pinsent, Olympia Dukakis, and Murphy who manage to stand out even with Christie’s strong presence almost eclipsing them. Her performance here is definitely deserving of an Oscar, and is even more deserving than Helen Mirren’s portrayal of the Queen last year. It is likely that she will get a nomination, even though the film is a limited release in a season not known for award-seeking films – that is just how great her performance is.
Technically, the film is also outstanding. While Polley chooses to hold the camera still, that doesn’t take away from the action in the film, because there is a lot of movement in front of the camera. And even when there are moments of complete stillness, they are effective because of the wonderful way cinematographer Luc Montpellier lights the scenes. The characters are lit up just so, as to add an almost unreal-in-its-perfection quality to the proceedings. The score by Johnathan Goldsmith leaves something to be desired, but is not totally generic and accompanies the film well.
Overall, I can’t help but recommend this film to everyone, even people who I know will be bored by its talky tendency. It is one of those films you will want to tell your friends about or one that will make you want to keep your feelings about its subject to yourself. Whichever one it is, what you will gain from this film can only be positive. Recommended.