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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

Away From Her (2006, ****)

01_300dpi.jpgI AM NOT ONE TO RESIST THE OPPORTUNITY TO RUSH HEADLONG AND HEEDLESS toward an apparent horizon of light and gush when I see a movie that cares for the mystery of love and longitude in shared human experience, but I have to say that the only release in 2007 to hover near the Irish marvel of a musical, Once, opening next week, would be 28-year-old Sarah Polley’s feature debut as a writer-director, Away From Her. After 12 years as a memorable screen presence, and six years since her 38-minute, dearly laconic comedy I Shout Love (2001) etching a dysfunctional, twentysomething Canadian relationship tethered to repetition, proximity and Hockey Night on CBC.
Away From Her, based on the Alice Munro short story “The Bear Came Over The Mountain,” [linked here] opens with credits on white, something filmmakers are usually urged to avoid for a number of technical reasons. But that, succeeded by cross-country ski tracks across a white field, gently, yet emphatically, introduce the content of the story: all that fades; light, memory, life. Julie Christie plays Fiona, a woman who realizes that her memory is fading and that she will have to urge Grant, played by the iconic patriarch of Canadian cinema and television, Gordon Pinsent, to do the right thing, to recognize that the conflicts that will come as her Alzheimer’s progresses must be addressed now. Of course, Fiona is in the person of 66-year-old Christie, her shoulder-length armor of curled tresses, this wildness of hair gone to silver and straw, and she is powerful, in scenes of strength and precognition, but later in those of loss and befuddlement and rage as well.

Polley’s husband, David Wharnsby, edited the picture, and they traffic in a shattered temporal scheme of great acuity, understated yet blissfully right for a story about losing grip of memory. One is reminded of her co-producer Atom Egoyan’s experiments in movies like The Sweet Hereafter,09_300dpi.jpgin which she acted, but Polley and Wharnsby work with a deft, even effortless touch, more like Alain Resnais’ early films like Last Year at Marienbad. Of course a movie about memory’s synaptic reaches and catches ought to be fractured!
Yet the movie, with its maturity and grace, never announces itself as “art.” Like most Canadian filmmakers, Polley is not afraid of profanity, and there is a great scene where a young woman, younger than Polley’s own 28, observes Grant as he observes Fiona across the room, now obsessed with another patient at the nursing home. Even when she introduces a character that could be a stand-in for expectations of a young, female director, she does so with humor and lived-in gusto. There’s even a terrific, recurring hockey gag I won’t give away, and you have to love a resident who admires Grant as a “charmer,” and further reflects, “At this age, it’s a real clusterfuck, all the charmers are taken. Or dead. Mostly dead.” (When Fiona’s disinhibition rises, she’s given lines like “People want to be in love every day. What a liability!” And Polley hints deftly at Grant’s past indiscretions by having Fiona reflect on his many female students, “All those sandals, all those bare female toes, Grant…”)
The couple has been together for over four decades. Resentments have been tamped, if not banked. Fiona and Grant seem genteel, characters who would read Alice Munro aloud to each other, as they do Louis MacNeice and W. H. Auden’s travelogue “Letters from Iceland” and Michael Ondaatje’s heart-dashing poem, “The Cinnamon Peeler“: “When we swam once/ I touched you in the water/ and our bodies remained free,/ you could hold me and be blind of smell./ You climbed the bank and said/ this is how you touch other women… / And you searched your arms/ for the missing perfume.” Polley imports only a few of those lines, yet the film is as much an adaptation of those words as of Munro’s. Away From Her—a title drawn from within the short story that quietly 10_300dpi.jpgshakes the rafters when it is spoken aloud and illuminated in the picture—is also discernibly an actor’s work, rich with reflective pauses, faces caught in consideration, the simple in-between-ness of the human pause.
Polley’s been promoting the hell out of this movie, in hopes of many more to come, and recent profiles keyed to the film’s release such as Karina Onstad’s in The New York Times, have made ready pop-psych out of her life story, which includes childhood scoliosis and as a result, steel rods in her back for life. (Julie Christie, I will grant, has said that Polley is much more mature than she and that she loves the insistent metaphor of Polley’s spine alongside her gentle demeanor to reflect her gifts as a director.) But Polley’s doggedness is unmistakable. This is the sort of movie that can smash the heart to bits and 116 minutes later, piece it back together, filling the room with more oxygen than you can stand. There are moments of fathomless lucidity and grace.
Every film upon the face of creation could end profitably with one of two images: the flat horizon beyond the sea or the turn of a woman‘s face toward or away from the camera (as at the end of Godard’s A bout de soufflé or in paintings by Gerhard Richter), turning her neck to evade or engage a gaze. Polley understands both iconic gestures in her closing shot. Her potential is great and Away From Her is just so measured, so tender, so kind, so very, very good. (Lionsgate’s official site is here.) [Ray Pride]

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