#1 - Away From Her
After a couple of excellent shorts, Canadian actress Sarah Polley (My Life Without Me, eXistenz) directs her first feature, an intelligent and perfectly cast drama about the disintegration of a marriage.
Fiona (Julie Christie) decides to check herself into a home when she learns that she suffers from Alzheimer's, and it sinks in that the degenerative disease will slowly but surely erase everything she cares for. Her husband of 44 years Grant (Gordon Pinsent) is forced to watch from the sidelines as she begins to forget him and their time together.
Gordon Pinsent and Julie Chistie give riveting, moving performances, playing intelligent characters caught in a slow-motion disaster both heartbreaking and mundane. Christie in particular sheds her wild and sexy 60s persona with grace, creating a radiant character of quiet, haunting beauty.
Around them talented supporting actors such as Olympia Dukakis and Wendy Crewson turn small parts into significant contributions to the story. Gorgeously photographed, the film contrasts the wild open-ended snowy landscapes of Northern Ontario with the off-white walls of a nursing facility ruled with chillingly upbeat tyranny.
Based on an Alice Munro short story (The Bear Came over the Mountain), Away From Her is an honest, insightful and unsentimental depiction of a long-term love affair the likes of which grace our screens all too rarely. The fact that a 28 year-old first time filmmaker can shed such light on how we live and love at the end of our lives inspires no small amount of awe.
The maturity of Polley’s approach lies not just in her bold, unsentimental take on the material, but in the way she subtly transforms what should have been a simple melodrama into something much more nuanced. In its second half the film shifts in small, almost invisible increments, from a story about illness to one about forgiveness.
The filmmaker introduces surprising new possibilities to the original set-up, asking questions without seeming to do so. For example, is Fiona really losing her memory or is she punishing her husband for past betrayals? Is she using her illness as a way to leave him? Or is it in order to free him?
Behind a deceptively straightforward drama exists layers of emotional and psychological complexity that reveal themselves to those who go looking. While it can be read as a familiar yet powerful drama of love and loss, Away From Her also conceals a powerful meditation on memory, compassion and redemption.
- Matt Ravier
“I can't remember the last time the movies yielded up a love story so painful, so tender and so true.” – A.O. Scott, The NY Times
To see the other films in the countdown so far, click here.