Away From Her

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Away From Her is Sarah Polley's Moving Portrait of Love and Loss

Apr 29, 2007 (Updated Apr 30, 2007)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Polley's mature direction. Terrific performances from Pinsent, Christie, Thomson, and Dukakis.

Cons:Grating, unnecessary moment referring to the Iraq war.

The Bottom Line: Away From Her is a terrific accomplishment from director Sarah Polley, who delivers an honest and mature film without standard contrivances.


In Away From Her, director Sarah Polley tackles the issue of Alzheimer’s disease and how it affects an older married couple. This is a movie that could have gone wrong in so many ways. With a young director, many might question her ability to handle such mature issues. Certainly she’d ruin it with cheap payoffs and ludicrous overacting. The plot itself could have easily been done as a cheap TV-movie. However, Sarah Polley the actress has always been known to make risky choices. After making her breakthrough with the lyrical Atom Egoyan masterpiece The Sweet Hereafter, Polley refused to take the easy route, choosing mostly independent films from directors as varied as David Cronenberg, Doug Liman, Michael Winterbottom, and Wim Wenders. With her first film as director, Polley stays true to that philosophy, making an honest and mature film without standard contrivances.

The film tells the story of Fiona (Julie Christie) and Grant (Gordon Pinsent), an older married couple who haven’t spent more than a month apart in thirty years. When Fiona begins forgetting simple things, they soon learn that she has Alzheimer’s disease. Even worse is the realization that the onset has been so severe that they’re left with no choice but to send her to a nursing home. Their once unbreakable bond becomes severely tested by this separation, especially when Fiona begins to turn her affections to a fellow patient.

Polley’s previous association with Atom Egoyan is evident in nearly every frame of this story. She adapted the screenplay from a short story by Alice Munro, and clearly made a point to make the dialogue as poetic as in Egoyan’s films. What’s amazing is how well it works. At no point does the dialogue feel forced, and that’s a testament to the performances of her cast. Working with actors mostly well above her age range, she shows a distinctive skill at coaxing natural performances from them. The only one that doesn’t work is Wendy Crewson as an annoyingly perky administrator at the nursing home. The idea of the character is sound, but Crewson plays it a bit too broadly to work in the context of this film.

An interesting narrative structure is employed to liven up a pretty basic plot. The story of Fiona and Grant dealing with news of the disease is intercut with scenes of Grant visiting the home of a woman who seems to know Fiona. This sort of time shifting structure has been employed excessively in recent films, but here it serves a better purpose than the director just showing off. The woman Grant visits, played by Olympia Dukakis, is extremely important to the overall story and the plot structure allows her relationship with Grant to have a complete arc, instead of a random interruption into the proceedings halfway through.

Julie Christie is sure to get plenty of attention for her wonderful portrait of a woman whose memory makes it difficult to remember where her emotions should lie, but the most stunning performance comes from Gordon Pinsent. A veteran Canadian actor with 99 credits to his name, he’s stayed mostly under the radar in the states, but hopefully that will change soon. His beautifully reserved performance is a splendid example of natural acting that hasn’t been seen since Peter Fonda in Ulee’s Gold. Also stunning in a supporting role is Kristen Thomson, as a nurse who presents Grant with the blunt realities of his situation.

There is one unfortunate moment where Polley takes us completely out of the film. While watching news coverage of the Iraq War, Fiona bursts out, “Don’t they remember Vietnam?” This analogy is not without merit (it has certainly made countless times), but it does not belong in this story. The entire movie takes place in the small context of the individual lives affected by the disease. This simplistic moment punctures that careful little world that Polley had created and interrupts the reserved, somber atmosphere of the film. While this may seem like a fairly small moment, it sticks out like a sore thumb, akin to a great novel having one page ripped out and replaced with something from Danielle Steele.

Thankfully the movie is able to recover its momentum, and other than some minor contrived plot points (in a key scene, Grant is able to retrieve an address too easily), Away From Her is a remarkable debut for Sarah Polley. She shows a maturity that surpasses most Hollywood filmmakers. At several points in the film, she’s willing to let things go unresolved. There’s an unspoken suggestion that Grant may have had an affair, and he wonders if she is punishing him for it. Neither of these are fully resolved, but they don’t need to be. Polley understands that what actually happened is far less important than how it affected the characters involved. There should be no question about it; Sarah Polley is a promising filmmaker, and at the age of 28 already has a great film under her belt.


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