Away from Her (2007): Julie Christie Shines in Oscar Nominated Performance as Woman Diagnozed with ALS

The gifted Canadian actress Sarah Polley makes a most impressive feature debut with Away From Her, a subtle tale of a long marriage and the problems the husband and wife face when she is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
An adaptation of the celebrated author Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over The Mountain,” it’s a beautifully acted (by Julie Christies and others), emotionally touching love story about memory and its circuitous and enigmatic paths over the course of one durable union.

“Away from Her” received a warm reception at its world premiere at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival, and then played to great acclaim at the 2007 Sundance Film Fest. Lionsgate will release this subtle marital drama in early May.

At a time when there are not many talented women directors around, Polley’s debut marks the arrival of a fresh and exciting female voice. While the movie exhibits a uniquely female POV, it’s not burdened by any overtly feminist or academic perspective. Polley’s humanistic touch, as writer and director, is evident in every frame.

The best compliment I can give Polley and her picture is that it adds a wonderful panel to a growing body of films about marriage on the verge of destruction or disintegration, led by Bergman’s seminal works, “Cries and Whispers,” “Scenes from a Marriage,” and most recently “Saraband,” as well as John Cassavetes, specifically, “A Woman Under the Influence,” about the effects of a wife’s mental problems on a working-class marriage.

This is not to say that Polley’s first work reaches the artistic heights of Bergman or Cassavetes, but to suggest that “Away from Her” and its young director, who’s 27, deserve strong support from critics and viewers.

“Away from Her” avoids so many melodramatic pitfalls that it merits praise for steering clear of the conventions of “Disease Movie of the Week.” There have been quite a few telepics about Alzheimer (and other illnesses), mostly mediocre, with the exception of features like Kirk Douglas’s “Amos,” which, though decent, served as star vehicles.

Married for almost 50 years, Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fionas (Julie Christie) commitment to each other appears unwavering, and their everyday life is full of tenderness and humor. This is conveyed in the film’s establishing shots, which depict the couple skiing in different positions: parallel to each other, pursuing different routes, and then again next to each other side-by-side.

The serenity is broken only by the occasional, carefully restrained reference to the past, suggesting that this marriage may not always have been such a rosy fairytale. Fionas tendency to make such references, along with her increasingly alarming memory loss, creates tension that’s usually brushed off casually by both spouses.

Nonetheless, when it is no longer possible for either Grant or Fiona to ignore the fact that she is inflicted with the nasty and crippling Alzheimers disease, the limits of their love and loyalty are wrenchingly contested and redefined.

For her debut, Polley has amassed a spectacular cast, mostly dominated by women, such as Olympia Dukakis, Kristen Thomson, and Alberta Watson, but the men are good too (see below).

Known to most American audiences for her role as the crippled, secretive daughter in Atom Egoyans 1997 masterpiece, “The Sweet Hereafter,” Polley has been acting since age six. Over the last several years, she has also developed her skills as filmmaker, having written and directed three shorts, “Don’t Think Twice,” “The Best Day of My Life,” and “I Shout Love.”

The same fierce intelligence and diligence that Polley has shown as an actress is manifest in her work as writer and director. Polleys mature understanding of the vagaries of a fifty-year marriage is all the more remarkable considering that she’s 27 and only a few years into her own marriage.

Polley’s script assumes the same sharp observations of Alice Munro’s tale, which looks right through things, and revolves around characters that are flawed, lovable in certain moments and utterly detestable in others. The film is marked by visual austerity and dramatic clarity that define the best work of Atom Egoyan, who’s here credited as exec-producer. Respectful of the source material and yet confident enough to expand on it, the scenario shows both subtlety and simplicity.

The Anderssons have remained committed to each other for fifty years, but now their marital tranquility is disrupted by Fionas failing memory as a result of Alzheimers. At first, Grant chooses to deny Fionas gradual deterioration, but it soon becomes impossible to ignore. Fiona first loses hold of recent memories, largely a good time in the Anderssons marriage, and plunges back into the trauma of the past, resurrecting old emotions that both she and Grant would rather forget. Polley is also using Alzheimer’s as a metaphor for how memory plays out in a long relationship, what partners choose to remember–and to forget.

Its inspiring when couples have been together for a long time, but still retain their distinct, often contradictory identities. The Andersons are people who have not melded into a monstrous couple a la “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (In which, incidentally, the husband, George, is an academic).

The love story is moving, because we look at it from our own perspective, bringing to it our own experiences of problematic, long-standing relationships. It confirms that life is cyclical and we all go through challenges of love, marriage, and commitment. Polley explores how a long marriage survives without falling back on remembrances of a romantic past, a gambit used by many films.

“Away from Her” focuses on the emotional scar tissue of Grant and Fionas relationship, how it continues to be a factor in their marriage. Unlike most love stories about older people, which tend to be either sentimental or replete with flashbacks to their better and happier youthful years. “Away from Her” depicts in a realistic mode a relationship thats been through incredible experiences–tumultuous emotions and sexual transgressions–and come out the other side. A story of abiding commitment in an uncommon situation, “Away from Her” offers a non-traditional look at love and the on-goingness of life, of how life continues to reinvent itself.

The uniformly excellent cast accounts for much of the emotional appeal of the movie. Christie, Pinsent, Dukakis and Murphy represent the graying of the baby boomer generation, yet they redefine the image of old age as one still marked by vitality and vibrancy, with romance and sexuality still serving as dynamic forces.

Cast in what’s her best role in a decade, Julie Christie excels as Fiona, the charming, vulnerable woman, described in Munros story as ethereal, light and sly. Magnetic and still stunningly beautiful at 65, Christies stresses Fiona’s sharp mind, her piercing gaze into other people, her sense of wonder and curiosity even when she deteriorates. Both very present and ephemeral, Christie shifts from one state of body and mind to another without appearing forced.

Like Christie, Gordon exhibits both a dignified and earthy quality. At 75, Gordon Pinsent, a Canadian icon, plays Grant Andersson, a former university professor of mythology. Grant still possesses the considerable charm that helped him seduce young co-eds years ago, yet age has led him to fully appreciate his wife’s beauty and intelligence. After flighty years, defined by other women, students, drugshe eventually realizes that Fiona always was the true love of his life.

When Fiona becomes ill, Grant has to learn how to let go of his lifes most prized possession. Grants tries to be strong, but hes also feeling weak and guilty; there’s nothing he can do to save the woman he loves. No matter what new people and energies come into Grants life, nothing will ever compare to Fiona. To have that taken away from him is devastating, and for a while he’s at a loss.

Three women come into Grant’s life: Madeleine, the Meadowlake administrator (Wendy Crewson), Kristy (Kristen Thomson), the facility’s head nurse, and Marian (Olympia Dukakis), the wife of Aubrey, a Meadowlake patient who becomes the unlikely object of Fionas affection. Marian and Grant are unexpectedly thrown together when their respective spouses, both suffering from debilitating illnesses, fall in love. Dukakis (who had worked with Polley on Thom Fitzgeralds “The Event,” and also appeared in Polleys shorts) gives a strong, understated performance.

Aubrey, Marians incapacitated husband, represents a departure for the naturally exuberant Michael Murphy, a character that never once speaks. Since contracting a disease in the Third World, Aubrey has been confined to a wheelchair with no communication with others. The emotion is all conveyed through his facial and bodily gestures. (This is the second teaming of Murphy and Julie Christie, who had appeared in Altmans 1971 Western “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”).

Rounding out the cast are Kristen Thomson as Kristy, and Wendy Crewson as Madeleine. Thomson (who starred in Polleys short “I Shout Love”) plays a sympathetic nurse who helps Grant attempt the transitions that Alzheimers has forced on his life. Crewson (who’s married to Michael Murphy), plays the detail-oriented, efficient supervisor who takes the brunt of Grants anger.

Cinematographer Luc Montpellier, who first worked with Polley on “I Shout Love” and The Shield Stories, a Canadian TV series, gives the saga a wintry look, capturing the luminescent beauty of that season rather than its harshness. Hence, he bathes Fiona and Grant’s relationship with cool winter source light, staying away from romantic clichs.

Moreover, Montpellier ably modifies the style according to the storys locations. In Grants and Fionas home, the scenes play out within precisely composed frames, like still photographs, letting the actors move about freely. But the visuals change when they arrive at Meadowlake, where the Steadicam conveys Grant’s uneasiness with the new place. Montpelliers challenge, to find a way to express visually the shifting textures of human memory, is also met. He shot segments on a hand-held Paillard Bolex H-16 converted to Super-16, which gives the images an unstable quality, at time full of clarity, and at others clouded by emotion, which mirrors the experience with human memory.

Similarly, production designer Kathleen Climie has studied the characters psychologies before designing the space they inhabit. While for Marian, the interior is structured (and uses drapes), for Fiona, the cottage is decorated with comfort (and curtains). The move to Meadowlake indicates the shifting perspective, embodying the transition in Fiona’s life from outdoors to indoors, from a simpler reality to a more complex memory of reality.


Fiona (Julie Christie)
Grant (Gordon Pinsent)
Marian (Olympia Dukakis)
Kristy (Kristen Thompson)
Aubrey (Michael Murphy)
Madeleine (Wendy Crewson)


Lionsgate Release in the US
A Film Farm and Foundry Films production, in association with Capri Releasing, HanWay Films and Echo Lake Productions.
Written and directed by Sarah Polley, based on the short story, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro.
Executive producer: Atom Egoyan, Doug Mankoff.
Co-producer: Victoria Hirst.
Produced by Daniel Iron, Simone Urdl, Jennifer Weiss.
Camera: Luc Montpellier
Casting: John Buchan
Costume Designer: Debra Hanson
Sound Designer: Jane Tattersall
Production Designer: Kathleen Climie
Music: Jonathan Goldsmith
Editor: David Wharns