Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Memory is a vital component of what makes up our individuality. It’s the foundation of who we are as a person. And not just our own memory, but also the memory of those around us; after all, to a certain extent, who we are is also dictated by how others see us.
Memory is at the core of Sarah Polley’s feature directorial debut, Away From Her.
In this incredibly moving adaptation of Alice Munro’s short story, “The Bear Came Over The Mountain,” Polley’s co-star in No Such Thing, the fantastic (and Oscar-nominated) Julie Christie, plays Fiona Anderson, a woman succumbing to Alzheimer’s Disease.

I’ll freely admit at this point, that it took quite a while for me to muster the courage to watch Away From Her, afraid as I was that it would be a difficult film to sit through, given its subject matter.
And sure enough, within the first few minutes of the film’s running time, when the first sign of Fiona’s fading memory exhibits itself, I could feel the ache in my chest.
Away From Her is definitely the most emotionally wrenching film I’ve seen from 2006,* and it’s a singular triumph for Polley, who I’ve loved since I first encountered in April of 1999, initially in Doug Liman’s Go, then a short two weeks later, in David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ.
In her feature-length directorial debut, not only does she adapt the short story with a tender artistry that keeps it from devolving into melodramatic schmaltz, but she also keenly directs both Christie and her co-star Gordon Pinsent (who plays Grant, Fiona’s husband of 44 years), performers who seem effortlessly imbued with a graceful melancholy that favours silences and looks over copious tears and histrionics.
What gives such emotional weight to the tragic price the disease exacts though, is the tender familiarity that so clearly exists between the characters. If the couple in question had been young and generic Hollywood stars, the term would be “chemistry.” For thespians like Christie and Pinsent though, the only term that seems right, is “love.”

The degeneration of a loved one (whether mental or physical) is always an agonizing ordeal, for all parties involved. Regardless of the particular circumstances, there is a kind of emotional dying that takes place, as the life of the relationship between the stricken individual and his or her loved one also languishes.
This is inevitable.
But what Away From Her is saying is, within the confines of that large inevitability, there are certain choices that one can snatch away and hold against one’s chest, decisions (and sacrifices) that can be made which will determine exactly how many people die when the stricken individual takes leave.
Those choices aren’t easy, certainly, but they’re the difference between being prisoners to circumstance and wanderers traveling by the light of fate.

* The most emotionally wrenching film from 2006 that wasn’t a horror film like The Living and the Dead or Right At Your Door, that is.

Parting shot: Sarah Polley’s script is also up for an Oscar in the Best Adapted Screenplay category, though admittedly, the competition is fierce, with No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood also vying for the statue.

(Away From Her OS courtesy of impawards.com; DVD cover art courtesy of amazon.com.)

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