20 February 2008

Filmbook: Away From Her (2007)

It is Oscar Week, and regular readers probably know what movie I'm hoping will win Best Picture. Rather than natter on about that, I'm going to recommend a film you might have missed in theatres, whose lead actress, Julie Christie, will hopefully go home with a little golden man on Sunday.

In "Away From Her" Julie Christie plays Fiona, a woman who lives with her retired professor husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and comes to the realization that she is losing her memory. Despite her best efforts, she is lucid enough to decide that she, while still relatively young, belongs in a nursing home, and the one she chooses has a policy that newcomers cannot have visitors for the first 30 days. The movie chronicles that move -- the first time Fiona and Grant have been separated at length -- and how it affects their relationship. It's a quiet character-driven film based on a character-driven story by Alice Munro, set against a background of winter white (filmed in Canada, the home of Munro as well as director Sarah Polley); the title comes from a voice-over of Pinsent's at the beginning of the film, in which he describes a scene from their youth. Here's how it plays in the book (and how Grant tells it nearly word-for-word in the film):
He thought maybe she was joking when she proposed to him, on a cold bright day on the beach at Port Stanley. Sand was stinging their faces and the waves delivered crashing loads of gravel at their feet.

“Do you think it would be fun—” Fiona shouted. “Do you think it would be fun if we got married?”

He took her up on it, he shouted yes. He wanted never to be away from her. She had the spark of life.

I missed this movie in theatrical release because, despite its glowing reviews, I was hesitant to see a movie about an elderly couple dealing with Alzheimer's disease. After another 2007 movie which deals with aging and its effects, "The Savages," I left the multiplex thinking about how much I would pay to have my mother never see or hear about this film, so much did it remind me in parts of the loss of my grandfather in 2003. (Laura Linney in "The Savages" is up for a Best Actress Oscar this year as well, as a daughter who along with her brother is facing a similar decision to the one Fiona makes in "Away from Her."

I would not hesitate to recommend "Away from Her," though, because while very sad, it is a beautiful film anchored by a performance by Julie Christie that is the opposite of most showy Oscar roles. If anyone else gave a performance that was so wholly interior, it was Javier Bardem in "No Country For Old Men," as a villain whose origins and rationale are unknowable to all. In contrast, Daniel Day-Lewis's performance in "There Will Be Blood" is the kind they call "a tour de force" -- especially in the latter part of the film, he pops off the screen. Ditto for Christie's primary competitor in the best actress race, Marion Cotillard, for her role in the Piaf biopic "La vie en rose"; I've seen the biopic, and Cotillard is amazing, but in the type of larger-than-life way the Oscars are (in)famous for rewarding. Her Piaf is tortured, but it's all out there since we begin with her as a little girl living in a brothel. Christie's Fiona is much harder to read -- her private struggles inform the performance without any kind of big revelatory moment.

Do the right thing, Academy voters! I'll be carving out time from reading to watch the ceremony.

Verdict: Read the story, then see the movie.

Still from the film: Indiewire

1 comment:

Jess said...

I heard about this movie and how fabulous it was but couldn't bring myself to go see it because it sounds awfully, tragically sad. Especially since I am just about to get married and already struggling with questions about how the marriage will end--like how "til death do us part" means that one of us has to die. I am so scared of Alzheimer's in either one of us.