FORGETTING, YET UNFORGETTABLE
May 4, 2007 -- JULIE Christie is simply astounding as a woman slipping into the ravages of Alzheimer's in Sarah Polley's deeply affecting and artfully crafted "Away From Her."
The still-gorgeous and iconic actress not only disappears into the character of Fiona Anderson, but at the end I felt like I'd known Fiona her whole life.
That's the sort of performance that wins Oscars.
This is the first film directed by the gifted Canadian actress Sarah Polley ("The Sweet Hereafter"), and she does so with an assurance even veteran helmers would envy. There isn't a false note in her screenplay - adapted from a short story by Alice Munro - or a wrong gesture, or a hesitant camera move.
There is no cheap sentiment here, either.
Polley showcases Christie as Fiona, who decides to move from her lakeside home to a nursing home so as not to burden her husband of 44 years, a bearish retired college professor named Grant.
Grant, played with enormous skill and subtlety by the veteran Canadian performer Gordon Pinsent, doesn't want to let Fiona go and is crushed when the institution's icy administrator (Wendy Crewson) insists he stay away for a month so his wife can "settle in."
When he comes to visit a month later, Grant is dismayed to see that Fiona, who may or not realize who he is, has developed an attachment for another patient, Aubrey, who is wheelchair-bound and who has lost his speech. He is well played by Michael Murphy, the journeyman actor who played Woody Allen's best friend in "Manhattan."
Grant blames himself and wonders if he is being punished for his long-ago extramarital dalliances. But he doggedly shows up at the institution every day, and gradually learns that loving sometimes means letting go.
What sounds on paper like a glorified Lifetime movie proceeds in unexpected ways, as Aubrey is removed by his wife (Olympia Dukakis) for financial reasons, and Fiona's mind begins to rapidly deteriorate. So Grant reaches out to Aubrey's wife.
While all the actors (including Kristen Thomson as a sympathetic but bluntly honest nurse) are at the top of their games, it's Christie who shines most brightly. Her Fiona shows flickers of recognition and memory that tantalize Grant - and will hit home for anyone who has had to deal with this awful disease.
"Away From Her," which mixes in abundant humor and flashbacks of Fiona's youth to devastating effect, is the best film about the issues of aging since Leo McCarey's "Make Way for Tomorrow," made 70 years ago. I think it's one of this year's finest and most memorable films.
AWAY FROM HER
Running time: 109 minutes. Rated PG-13 (strong language). At the Lincoln Plaza and the Sunshine.