Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent in Away from Her (2006)


(director/writer: Sarah Polley; screenwriter: based on the short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro; cinematographer: Luc Montpellier; editor: David Wharnsby; music: Jonathan Goldsmith; cast: Julie Christie (Fiona), Gordon Pinsent (Grant), Olympia Dukakis (Marian), Kristen Thompson (Kristy), Michael Murphy (Aubrey), Wendy Crewson (Madeleine); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Daniel Iron/Simone Urdl/Jennifer Weiss; Lionsgate; 2006)

“If the Oscars were really looking for Best Actress, it couldn’t go wrong looking this way.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The writing and directing debut of the accomplished 28-year-old Canadian actress Sarah Polley results in a low-key, well-conceived and poignant chamber piece about marriage, forgetting and other life mysteries that touches most folks but not in the same way or same degrees. It’s based on the short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro.

Fiona Anderson (Julie Christie) and her former college professor husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent) are a childless couple in their sixties, married for 44 years and living in retirement in a comfortable rustic cabin in the secluded part of Northern Ontario, where they spend their days cross-country skiing, drinking wine and reading aloud to each other. Everything seems idyllic, except Fiona is in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease. She sometimes has a vacant stare and at times can’t remember where to place things. The worried husband, though reluctant, has no choice but to place his wife in the Meadowlake nursing home, that’s solely for Alzheimer patients. While there she forgets who he is and starts a relationship with another patient named Aubrey (Michael Murphy). This causes Grant to rethink his marriage and wonder if his wife was as content with it as he was. He also thinks she might be giving him the business for his past discretions with his students, and feels his patience is being tested. But though he’s the possessive type, he’s always there for her with daily visits and has long chats with the staff on monitoring her condition. The brutally honest head nurse Kristy (Kristen Thompson) is particularly sensitive and knowledgeable, and remains calm and professional despite her personal life being somewhat chaotic. The supervisor Madeleine (Kristen Thompson) never lets us see what she really thinks, but prides herself in running an efficient nursing home though one can’t help feeling uncomfortable with her lack of spontaneity and true warmth. Because of his wife’s strong relationship with Aubrey, Grant meets his wife Marian (Olympia Dukakis). The pragmatic Marian is at first hostile but then warms up to him as a potential bunkmate, and the two begin a temporary affair of convenience that initiated by her.

It’s a painful but tender tale, that’s told in an unsentimental way, stating that such unfortunate diseases are just part of life and there’s nothing else to do but accept them. The film is deliberately slow-paced and dry, and forces the viewer to catch the facial reactions of all the featured performers to catch onto what they are feeling. Polley says something profound by hardly saying anything, but allowing us to see for ourselves the ups and downs of what goes for a successful marriage and how devastating it is to forget so much about one’s self and become so dependent on others. At one point, while watching the news covering the current Iraqi war, it cleverly can’t resist getting in how the so-called healthy world has so easily forgotten about Vietnam–making it sound like they’ve also contacted a disease.

The film is also greatly helped by an outstanding cast, headed by the mesmerizing performance by Julie Christie. If the Oscars were really looking for Best Actress, it couldn’t go wrong looking this way. For that matter, it couldn’t go wrong looking at the tremendous subtle performance by the Canadian actor Pinsent and tossing the Oscar his way for Best Actor.