- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2007

“Away From Her” is a deeply intelligent film about the burdens of marriage and memory. Given both the subject matter and the deft way in which it’s handled, it’s astonishing that it was made by a first-time director who has just turned 28.

Canadian actress Sarah Polley (“Go,” “My Life Without Me”) shows here that she’s as talented behind a camera as she is in front of one. Not only directing, she has also astutely adapted the work of another Canadian, Alice Munro; “Away From Her” is based on her short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.”

Miss Polley is helped, of course, in having for her star one of the world’s most beautiful and talented actresses.

Julie Christie is Fiona, who lives in a snowy Ontario retreat with her husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent, “The Shipping News”). The two share a comfortable life together, but it’s showing signs of strain. Fiona is becoming forgetful. First she puts a frying pan in the wrong place, soon she can’t recall what “yellow” means.

“Don’t worry, darling, I expect I’m just losing my mind,” she says with good humor. Grant doesn’t take it so well. When she misplaces that pan, he is visibly, palpably nervous.

After she’s diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the eminently practical Fiona decides to move to a nursing home. Grant doesn’t approve of her choice. The hardheaded Fiona says they’ll never find a place they like: “I think all we can aspire to in this situation is a little grace.”

Fiona and Grant are separated for the first time in their 44-year marriage when she enters the home. Rules prohibit visitors in the first 30 days, ostensibly to give patients time to adjust. Grant returns after a month and finds that Fiona has not only forgotten him, she’s transferred her affections elsewhere: She’s now attached to a mute patient named Aubrey. A bereft Grant can’t tell whether Fiona has unaccountably degenerated or is cruelly punishing him.

Because as Fiona began losing some of her memories, others rose to the surface. Crucial among them was the recollection of Grant’s infidelity, some 20 years earlier. She wished this knowledge was something she could forget, like the place for that frying pan; but memory sometimes has an awful persistence.

It’s insights like that on which Miss Polley builds her highly literate film.

Language that might seem pretentious in lesser hands is perfectly natural when spoken by the old hands here, who also include Olympia Dukakis, playing Aubrey’s lonely wife with a tough-cookie swagger.

Miss Christie conveys the full gamut of feeling in her arresting blue eyes, from confusion to shock to suffering to joy. (Miss Polley’s frequent shots moving around her character’s faces add to the deeply felt emotion.) But it’s Mr. Pinsent’s Grant who must deal with those emotions, and the actor anchors the film with an admirably restrained performance.

Often in the move from page to screen, subtlety is lost. But Miss Polley only adds more ambiguity to her masterful adaptation. It can’t be easy to adapt one legend and direct another one. “Away from Her” heralds a young talent to be reckoned with.

***1/2

TITLE: “Away From Her”

RATING: PG-13 (some sexual references)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Sarah Polley. Based on the short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro.

RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes

WEB SITE:www.memory-catcher.net

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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