Thesp Sarah Polley’s feature directorial bow “Away From Her” is a gracefully wrought study of a long-term marriage being wedged apart by Alzheimer’s. Small-scale drama lacks the youth hook or broader emotional cues of recent, similarly themed “The Notebook,” and will (at least outside Canada) make a correspondingly modest theatrical impression. But lingering affection for Julie Christie and good reviews should attract viewers who “don’t get out to the movies much anymore” (as her character puts it), resulting in decent returns and possible award noms before easy translation to small-screen berths. Lionsgate pickup opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles before rolling out to further U.S. playdates.
Based on an Alice Munro story, the tale introduces what looks like an ideally devoted, active older couple going cross-country skiing each day at dusk from their cottage in the Ontario countryside. Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona Anderson (Christie) still seem simpatico after 44 years together. “Don’t worry, I’m just losing my mind” she quips when he catches her absently putting a frying pan in the freezer.
But it’s not a joke: Fiona has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. After a subsequent outing results in her confusedly staying out in the cold for hours, she decides to check herself in to a nearby deluxe rest home.
Grant fears the stay will become permanent, and might hasten Fiona’s decline. Still, she insists, despite the facility’s policy barring all visitors and phone calls for the patient’s first 30 days.
After not-so-patiently waiting a month, Grant arrives flowers-in-hand like a young suitor, and is treated like one — indeed, it’s not entirely clear whether Fiona knows precisely who he is anymore. Their time-tested relationship now seems less immediate than her doting one with wheelchair-bound fellow resident Aubrey (a mute Murphy). Grant is angry and jealous, and when he confronts Fiona, she explains, “He doesn’t confuse me at all.”
Nonetheless, Grant visits every day. In darkest moments he fears she’s just faking memory loss, punishing him for the extramarital transgressions of many years before. Offering some gently clarifying guidance is nurse Kristy, whose insights into patients and the loved ones they leave behind (physically and/or mentally) are as true as they are plainspoken.
Intercut with these events are flash-forwards to the meeting Grant has with Marian (Olympia Dukakis), a seemingly severe woman who turns out to be Aubrey’s wife — and to whom Grant turns in desperation when Aubrey’s removal from Meadowbrook has a drastic effect on Fiona’s well-being.
As scenarist and director, Polley is wholly focused on character-based material. Brief, grainy flashbacks to Grant and Fiona’s earlier days rep the sole visual digression from a clean, straightforward presentation.
While one might wish for a directorial approach that would distance it more thoroughly from telepic terrain, what “Away From Her” achieves is quite admirable — a low-key, intelligent setting for performances marked by those same qualities.
Though not an actress who disappears into vagueness easily — those eyes have always been too inquisitive, even when they weren’t especially engaged by the role at hand — Christie is poignantly appealing, easily suggesting a woman Grant might still be fascinated by after nearly a half-century. But it’s Pinsent who really carries the bulk of screen time and the film itself, in a perfectly restrained turn.
Dukakis and Thomson both are terrific in supporting parts that gain considerable depth as the pic progresses.
Design aspects are thoughtful and unshowy, in the mode of Jonathan Goldsmith’s near-ambient score; tech contribs are polished.