Friday, 8 January 2010

So As You Can See, We Get A Lot Of Natural Light.

Sarah Polley, a Canadian actress of some international note, is noted for her intelligence and incredible ability to physically portray emotion without the need for words, but the film of hers that arguably made her known more to audiences around the world is one in which she did not, in fact, appear. Away From Her, her 2006 directorial debut, saw her Oscar nominated for Adapted Screenplay, with her star Julie Christie picking up a nom for Best Actress.

Fiona (Christie) and her husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent) are two sixty-somethings living in a cottage in Canadia as Fiona begins to suffer symptoms of Alzheimer's disease - quite young. At first it is just a few little things, but the film quickly shows her rapid deterioration. Quite intelligent, Fiona accepts her fate, and almost forces Grant into sending her into a care home. The home's policy of not allowing contact with the outside world for thirty days after admission means that by the time Grant gets to visit his wife of 44 years, she can no longer remember who he is, and indeed appears to have started an emotional (if not necessarily physical) relationship with another patient, Aubrey. Aubrey is eventually moved out of the home to remain under the care of his wife Marian (Olympia Dukakis), causing Fiona much trauma and seemingly increasing her descent into the ultimate oblivion she shall find herself in.

Meanwhile, parallel to this is the beginning of an unlikely friendship between Grant and Marian. Grant tracks Marian down to ask her to allow Aubrey to visit Fiona, to provide her with some comfort and joy and perhaps to slow her progression, and the two begin to see that the disease afflicting their spouses gives them much in common - including fears, desires and responsibilities.

Christie's performance is amazing. Her character has many differences to that of Iris Murdoch in that other incredible Alzheimer's performance of the decade, Judi Dench in Iris, in that she does seem to retain a higher level of awareness and dignity - quite possibly we simply do not follow her as deeply into the ravine of forgetfulness that we do with Iris. But her wit and humour provide us with respite in a situation that could otherwise become almost unbearable. And there is a lot of beautiful humanity in the film. Grant loves his wife (and Marian her husband, in a different way) very much, visits her every day despite the fact that she doesn't know who he is. Yet when he sees that her only real happiness in this new world she is inhabiting is given to her by Aubrey, he effectively sacrifices what he feels are his needs and rights as her husband of over four decades to give her the happiness he cannot. And his relationship with Marian is built upon a shared respect of each of their duties to their actual spouses, while they try and retain something in their own lives to keep them moving.

It's a wonderful and understated film. It says just enough to keep you on the edge of heartache, and then draws you back in with a laugh. I find mental disorders such as this the most heartbreaking, so I'm a sucker for films like this and solid performances like Christie's and Dench's. Polley does an amazing job drawing the elements together and continually moving you as you watch, drawing you into their lives and troubles. And considering she was only 27 when the film released it becomes even more extraordinary - her incredible maturity to be able to understand how a marriage almost twice as long as she has lived can work, and work so well, is tremendously applaudable. I guess it takes an actor to work their way into a space where they can represent a cast of characters with an average age thirty years greater than her.

Here's to hoping Polley pulls out something equally as good, and soon, for her sophomore effort. And to Christie getting more work asap - who said there wasn't work for over 40 actresses out there? Well, they're right, there isn't, but when it's this freaking good, it should be more common. 4.5 stars.

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