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NEW YORK REVIEW
The young Canadian actress Sarah Polley has always combined a blunt, no-b.s. delivery with a slightly abstracted air, and she brings that odd blend to her focused yet dreamy debut feature Away From Her. A loving adaptation (by Polley) of Alice Munro's story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," it's about the struggle of an ex-professor, Grant (Gordon Pinsent), to come to grips with the Alzheimer's disease of his wife of 50 years, Fiona (Julie Christie). But this is no Illness of the Week movie. Its real subject is the instincts that emerge as Fiona's short-term memories fade—that steer her away from her husband, who once cheated on her with his students, and into a nurturing, dependent relationship with a mentally enfeebled patient, Aubrey (Michael Murphy), at her "retirement facility." This sounds like the stuff of a male-comeuppance movie—but Polley (like Munro) aims much higher. Away From Her is a twilight-of-life love story, one that harshly demolishes our romantic notions of love and loyalty, then replaces them with something deeper and, finally, more consoling.
Could there be a more transcendent Fiona than Christie? The actress has wrinkled, of course, but all hail great bone structure! She has the same face, the same faraway eyes, the same otherworldly beauty she had in her youth. Her Fiona is present (the shell remains, and so does the inner glow) and yet just out of reach. When she greets her husband with a coquettish, "You're persistent, aren't you?" you don't know if she recognizes him or regards him as a new suitor (it's likely a bit of both). As Grant trails her around her new home, watching her stroke and cling to her new special friend, you see in his eyes the raw pain of a boy abandoned by his first great love, struggling to make cosmic sense of the injustice. Where this takes him is nowhere you could imagine.
Away from Her is part memory play, weaving in and out of the past as Grant drives down the wintry Canadian roads to see Aubrey's wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis). How you view what follows might depend on how you regard both the character and the actress—who is fresh and youthful-looking and funny, but has the unenviable task of playing an alternative to one of the screen's most sublime beauties. However you feel, you'll brood on it long after this haunting movie ends. —Reviewed by David Edelstein, New York Magazine