Saturday, January 5, 2008

Hopelessly Devoted

Away From Her is a film about Alzheimer's and old age written and directed by Sarah Polley, currently 28. That alone is impressive. Even more impressive is that she pulls it off with compassion and integrity. It's a tricky subject, and I think there's a very fine line in dealing with such a devastating illness. There's a risk of making a film that's so somber that no one will want to see it, and there's also the risk of treating the subject too flippantly. Polley does neither. She also makes it accessible to people of all ages. Most, if not all, people will be affected by Alzheimer's at some point in their lives - either by getting it themselves or knowing someone suffering from it. It's a terrifying, heartbreaking illness, certainly for the person who has it, at least until oblivion settles in (and what kind of life is that?), but maybe even more so for the person who has to sit and wait and watch helplessly as their loved one deteriorates, as Away From Her shows.

Julie Christie is magnificent as the Alzheimer's-afflicted Fiona. I would have liked to have seen more of her, though. She is not the main character. That title belongs to Grant, her husband, played by Gordon Pinsent. It's about his struggle to deal with mistakes of the past, the pain of the present, and the uncertainty of the future. Once in a home, Fiona forgets Grant and becomes attached to another patient, Aubrey. Grant has to watch his wife fall in love with another man. There's also a storyline involving Aubrey's wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis), and Grant that is surprising and touching.

Ultimately, this film is about growing up, no matter how old you are. It's about love, responsibility, devotion, regret, and sacrifice. It's a really lovely film, but I question some of the directorial choices. I think there's a bit too much lingering on skiing, landscapes (Canada is beautiful, I'll give you that), and literature. For me, it was a bit too heavy-handed at times, too metaphorical and artsy, and unnecessarily non-linear. There were times when I was really unclear about what was going on in the story. I wasn't ever quite sure what the characters were thinking, although maybe that's the point. Still, there were parts that confused me and things left untied that could have been wrapped up more neatly.

Dukakis is adequate, but she's nothing compared to her co-stars. Incidentally, she does not look like she's in her 70s. You go, Olympia! As I've already said, Julie Christie is luminous and will undoubtedly get an Oscar nomination, but she isn't the lead. I feel like this is more of a supporting role, at least when you go according to screen time. Forrest Whitaker won for Best Actor, and he certainly isn't the lead in that film. I don't know how the Academy figures this stuff out. It's so messed up. Regardless, it shouldn't be held against Christie, who's fantastic, and still a striking beauty. I just wanted to see more of her. I can't believe that Gordon Pinsent is being so overlooked. He's the one who really blew me away, honestly. And I'd never heard of him before. We just get to spend so much time with him. He's subtle, powerful, and devastating as the self-sacrificing, devoted, repentant husband. He deserves more recognition.

I really liked Away From Her a lot, but it was definitely lacking. Overall, it works, and it's a very moving, important story. People need to pay more attention to Alzheimer's, and I think Polley is brave. It really makes you think about mortality and human fragility, about life and love and choices and memories, and it's done in a very sensitive, intelligent way. For her filmmaking debut, Sarah Polley should be very proud. I think she'll only get better.

Rating: **** (out of 5)

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