Head Games

Away From Her is a masterwork from a directorial newbie

Movie Guru

by Kevin Crowe

After 44 years of marriage, it seems as though old age is pretty awesome for Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona Anderson (Julie Christie). They're living in a quaint cottage, enjoying the finer things in life, spending their golden years in a winter wonderland. Just cross-country skiing and snuggling by the fire. It's almost too cute, but don't yack in disgust, because this tender moment doesn't last very long.

â“Don't worry,â” Fiona says after she absentmindedly puts a skillet in the refrigerator. â“I'm just losing my mind.â” Her words aren't as lighthearted as they sound. Fiona has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and her mind is slowly winding down.

Away From Her is the directorial debut for the young Canadian actress, Sarah Polley. The 28-year-old might be best known for screaming her head off in Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead , yet she's also been something of an indie-film darling, with roles in Existenz , My Life Without Me and The Sweet Hereafter . She's always been a delicate actress, a careful observer of the human condition. She has the rare ability to convey emotion without saying a word, and that kind of artistic simplicity is what saves this film from melodrama. It's about Alzheimer's disease, sure, but the movie as a whole is so much bigger than that. This is a drama that celebrates everything that makes us human, which includes ridiculousness, mental anguish and, of course, redemption.

It's no surprise that, from the director's chair, Polley's able to effectively use silence to let the story tell itself. There are moments, none of which seem overly sentimental, in which the actors are just there, deep in thought, allowing their body language to tell the story.

Based on a story by Alice Monroe, Polley's film is an expressionistic patchwork, constantly jumping through time as Grant does his best to cope with his wife's declining mental state. The flashbacks are masterfully woven into the film, allowing the story to slowly and methodically unfold. At times, the film is downright depressing, a ruthless reminder of how sad life can be and how painful love really is. Then, just when it seems to be heading towards an ugly, bleak finale, there are moments of shimmering humanity, a subtle defiance of the sickest moments in life. Depression and despair, as Polley so eloquently suggests, are never eternal. At the same time, pain never goes away completely. Let's watch:

We get flashes of the marriage, both the good times and the times when things weren't going so smoothly. Layered on top of those memories, we see Grant's heartbreak after he visits Fiona in an upscale nursing home; Fiona, it seems, doesn't recognize him at all. All of it comes together rather seamlessly, as Grant tries to retrace the key events in his marriage in order to put things back together. Or at least find a little peace in the process.

The film's opening sequence, when Grant and Fiona are returning from a ski trip, sets up the metaphor that provides the momentum throughout the film. As they return home, Grant and Fiona retrace the tracks that they had etched into the snow earlier in the day. The film, as a result, is not concerned with just the past, present or future, but all of it, bundled together in a great maze. For Grant, the trick is retracing his steps, and coming to terms with his own personal demons. Life nevertheless slogs on.

Grant comes to the nursing home, flowers in hand. He hasn't seen Fiona for 30 days, which is the home's policy whenever new clients move in. He's noticeably giddy with anticipation, like a star-crossed lover about to pick up his first date. When he finally sees her, she's with another man, the wheelchair-bound Aubrey. The two have formed a strong bond, as if they've been together for years.

â“He doesn't confuse me,â” Fiona says. Her eyes constantly search Grant's face, desperately looking for a faint hint of familiarity. â“You are persistent, aren't you?â” she later asks. â“I'll see you tomorrow, then?â”

Away From Her avoids sappiness for the most part, a rare thing when directors try to tackle heart wrenching subject matter. Christie and Pinsent are both remarkable in their roles. The most poignant moments occur when Grant seems to come to terms with Fiona, if only for a moment. He sits in the dinning room of the nursing home, watching her spoon-feed Aubrey.

For Polley, this film marks a phenomenal debut as a director. She presents the story with such honesty, never pulling any punches, so that the complexities of the characters are given room to breathe. Their minds are screaming out in pain, helpless to make any sense out of their lives. Sometimes acceptance and understanding are two very different things.

Movie Guru Rating:

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Remember Memento?

Even though it's about short-term memory loss and not Alzheimer's, Memento (2000) was arguably the most unique take on forgetfulness in recent cinematic history.

A successor to Christopher Nolan's non-sequential black and white debut Following , the film tracks Leonard, an insurance claims investigator turned quasi-detective, on a hunt for his wife's killer. One problem: When the burglars broke into his home and beat his wife, they cracked his head upside the mirror, which affected his ability to remember what happened just five minutes ago. The only way he can keep up with clues is by tattooing them on his body and relying on the Polaroids he's snapped about town.

Leonard retains his long-term memory, however, and Nolan leaves just enough doubt lingering as to what his main character actually recalls and what he's trained himself to forget.

Nolan complicates the story even further by starting the action at the end and rewinding us back to where it all began. It's an odd way to construct a plotâ"one that had never been fully realized before Nolan came on the scene. Sure there were forbearers that altered time and place, but only Nolan knew what sharp twists and near impossible turns he could make by revealing bits of celluloid in reverse order.

It was a well-conceived coming out for Guy Pierce (Leonard), Carrie-Anne Moss (outside the Matrix ) and Joe Pantoliano (also post- Matrix and irresistibly annoying as ever). And although Nolan has since crossed over to the major studio dark side (we could've done without the mediocre-at-best Insomnia ), he has managed to retain that indie flair as seen with his resurrection of the nearly collapsed Batman franchise and last year's sleight of hand Prestige .

Looking back, the narrative style of Memento is more than just a bar trick (â“Wow, that's coolâ”), it's a device that allows you to see the world through Leonard's eyes. The movie relies on the viewer to remember the previous 15-minute segment and build on it with the next before everything comes to a mind-boggling denouement, which will beg a second, or even a third, look. â" Larue Cook


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