Sarah Polley’s devastating directorial debut Away From Her is a quiet, emotional powerhouse of a drama that most people will probably never see. A tough, honest, and sad film about growing old and losing one’s sanity to Alzheimer’s disease, Away From Her is perfectly written, acted, and directed. Already an accomplished actress, Polley confidently established herself as one of the best up and coming filmmakers working today with this film, while her second film, the absurdly underrated Take This Waltz, reconfirmed this fact in a totally different style and fashion. Her writing is sensitive yet never maudlin and her low-key, well-observed directing style has much in common with fellow Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter), who served as a producer on Away From Her. Julie Christie, in an astonishing performance, is Fiona, a sweet-natured wife whose world comes crashing down around her as the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s start to appear. Her loving but conflicted husband Grant (the amazing Gordon Pinsent) doesn’t want to send his wife to a nursing home but knows that he can’t take care of Fiona alone. They haven’t spent more than a day away from each other in close to 45 years and one of the requirements of the hospital is that no patient receives visitors for the first 30 days. Once admitted, Fiona starts to lose herself to the disease even further, while she develops a unique friendship with another patient that has ramifications on the lives of both Grant, and a set of their friends. The story zigs and zags and never feels contrived, with the story’s progression coming at a smart pace.
This is not an easy film to watch as it goes to some very upsetting places, and I can think of few other situations that a loving married couple could find themselves in that would be worse than this. The depth of the story and the tenderness of the writing lend Away From Her an edge over other stories dealing with similar conceits; Polley has a naturalistic way with her actors that clearly stems from her own effortless acting abilities. Released in 2006, the film felt like some sort of companion piece (though not nearly as funny) to that year’s great black comedy The Savages, which was another film that deals with old age and tough family decisions. But Away From Her works as an intimate drama more than anything else, with Christie lighting up the screen with reserved panache and sad grace. Pinsent, an actor who I’d never see before viewing him in this crushing film, registers just as strongly in a slow-burn performance filled with guilt, sadness, and finally, redemption. Away From Her is a frightening movie in many ways, and you get the sense that this sort of story is happening right now, around the corner and down the block from your own house, and all over the world. This is the sort of film that reminds you to grab life by the horns and live it to the fullest, and embrace all of those around you who are special. There are no guarantees. This is a great film and a total knock-out of a debut for Polley, who I hope is fast at work on her next project.