' Cinema Romantico: Away From Her

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Away From Her

So when exactly did May become as good a moviegoing month as December? I'm confused. I saw "Waitress" last week and figured I wouldn't see anything as good until the leaves had started to change color and, by golly, it's only a week later and I've already seen something better. (Thank you, gods of cinema.)

"Away From Her" is the writing (based on a short story) and directorial debut of actress Sarah Polley. She's always been a subtle, graceful, nuanced actress and so I'm not at all surprised to find those three qualities in abundance with her behind the camera.

The legendary Julie Christie and Gordon Pinset play Fiona and Grant, a couple that have been married for 44 years. But Fiona is beginning to lose her memory. We see this right from the beginning and that beginning lays down the law in regards to how good this movie is going to be. Fiona takes a just-washed frying pan and puts it in the freezer. That's it, you ask? But the way it's done, and acted, it's perfect. It's heartbreaking. And it's typical of the film. Little moments translate into the biggest. It's a sign of the filmmaker trusting his or her story and letting the movie breathe.

Fiona's memory gets very worse very quickly and it becomes clear to Fiona, and probably to Grant as well (though he wouldn't admit it), that she will need to go to a care facility. The story is then told from Grant's point of view as he must cope with the person he's loved for so long slowly vanishing and, essentially, turning into someone else.

There was a point several years ago when I made it a mission to seek out Julie Christie's work. I watched many of her films. "Don't Look Now". "Darling". "Shampoo". She's an amazing actress and she's amazing here. She still looks beautiful but she is not afraid to let herself appear haggard when the movie requires it. She perfectly captures a woman who realizes what's happening to her and meets it head-on with a quiet dignity. There's a moment when Fiona says to her husband something to the effect of, We need to handle this with a little grace. And all I could think was, a little grace? Oh no, Ms. Christie. That's one quality you've got in spades.

Pinset (this is the first time I've encountered him) is her equal. Much of the movie relys on quiet moments with him, his reaction shots. That's not easy. And he's up to the task. While he clearly loves his wife he also hints at a sadness, and a regret, which the movie refuses to spell out in obvious terms.

Mention must also be made of the female assistant at the care facility with whom Grant forges a friendship. So often this type of character is relegated to one note - sometimes even less - but in this instance the trend is averted.

At first glance the premise probably appears to have Lifetime written all over it. But it's not that way at all. It's not a tear-jerker (well, it's not specifically trying to be a tear-jerker) and it doesn't sum up everything neatly and its topic never outweighs its characters. This is a subtle, delicate piece of filmmaking. Dare I even say it's a semi-genius piece of filmmaking? (I did just say it.)

Like I said, Sarah Polley was always a fantastic actress. And from the looks of things she is going to be a fantastic director, too. A lot of actors who direct make one film and then wait another 10 years or so to make another one. They dabble in it. All I ask of Sarah Polley is that she not just dabble in it.

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