MONTREAL — The embattled English-Canadian cinema scene finally has something to cheer about: homegrown actress-turned-director Sarah Polley.
After years of dismal returns at the box office and scant international attention, Canuck film at last has a success story at home and abroad — at least by the country’s admittedly low commercial standards. The 28-year-old Toronto native’s directorial debut “Away From Her” is that rarest of creatures, an English-Canadian film that has scored with the public and the critics. The quiet, moving drama has grossed $4.5 million in Canada and the U.S., marking the first time an English Canuck pic has done any business in the U.S. in years.
And the pic’s star, Julie Christie, who plays an aging woman suffering from Alzheimer’s, is already generating Oscar buzz.
Pic’s success is even more surprising given its subject matter. Based on a short story by beloved Canadian writer Alice Munro, the pic — which was written and directed by Polley — is a dark, brooding look at what happens to a longtime couple when the wife voluntarily admits herself to an old folk’s home.
Polley remains one of the country’s best-known film personalities thanks to her role in the long-running family series “Road to Avonlea,” which turned her into a star here while still a teenager. She’s also known for roles in pics like Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter” and the 2004 remake of “Dawn of the Dead.”
On the phone recently from Hungary, where she was acting in the HBO miniseries “John Adams,” Polley said she was as surprised as anyone else to see “Away From Her” do so well at the box office. She attributes the success to the North American distributors — Mongrel Media/Capri in Canada and Lionsgate in the U.S. — coming through with smart, aggressive campaigns.
“I’ve been in Canadian films that were a lot more commercial than this, and those films were never given the chance to be successful,” Polley said.
But the secret of the success of “Away From Her” might just be that it doesn’t try to be commercial. Too often, Canadian films have attempted to ape the commercial style of Hollywood — and those copycat films tend to stiff at the cash register. In recent years, federal film funder Telefilm Canada has been on a big push to finance more commercial films, but the strategy has backfired for English-Canadian films. (French-Canadian films, au contraire, are flourishing at the wickets, with decidedly populist fare.)
“We try to do formulaic films in Canada, and the fact is that what we should be focusing on is doing original films,” said Mongrel Media president Hussain Amarshi. “When we’ve made films with care and detail, like ‘Manufactured Landscapes,’ ‘Water,’ ‘Away From Her’ or ‘The Corporation,’ it’s worked.”
It also didn’t hurt “Away From Her” that Polley — who does not act in the pic — is articulate and photogenic and traveled widely promoting the film.
But Polley is loathe to have it suggested that her film marks a break with the tradition of English-Canadian art cinema, not surprising given that she has starred in so many arthouse Canuck pics, notably “Law of Enclosures” and “Love Come Down.”
“I grew up in Canadian film, and to me (‘Away From Her’) is very much in the tradition of what I have learned in Canadian film,” Polley said.
In the decade since the Oscar-nommed “Sweet Hereafter,” Polley thinks people just “gave up on Canadian film.” But if there is a renewed optimism this year, it’s thanks to Polley’s pic. Now the question is whether she can do it again with her sophomore directing effort. She hasn’t decided on her next project, and is instead spending the coming months acting. After “John Adams,” she segues to the Euro/Canuck co-production “Mr. Nobody,” directed by Belgian helmer Jaco Van Dormael and co-starring Jared Leto.