Aging Gracefully: Christie Is a Brilliant Sunset in the Snow

Running Time 110 minutes
Written and directed by Sarah Polley
Starring Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent, Olympia Dukakis

Sarah Polley’s Away From Her, from her own screenplay, based on the short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro, plays out as a wondrously lyrical account of a married couple trying, after almost 50 years of a loving relationship, to come to grips with a death-like loss of contact. Julie Christie marvelously inhabits the ravaged consciousness of an Alzheimer’s victim named Fiona, who is drifting further and further away from herself, her memories and her lovingly patient husband, Grant (played with luminous lucidity by Gordon Pinsent). One of the most remarkable aspects of this exquisite film is the ability of Ms. Polley—a 28-year-old woman with a consistently brilliant ongoing acting career, here making her feature-film debut as director­—not only to understand the voluptuous recklessness of old age when there is very little more to lose, but to empathize with it so perceptively and so poetically.

This poignant drama unfolds against the wintry snowscape of Ontario, Canada, rendered with a mix of icy lucidity and enveloping mistiness by cinematographer Luc Montpellier. One of the most memorable images in the film is that of Fiona, in the midst of her cross-country skiing, throwing her skis and flinging herself, arms and legs extended, into the cradle of the soft snow, as if she wanted it to swallow her up whole so that her now-clouded identity could at last find peace in oblivion.

Ms. Christie and Mr. Pinsent are given strong support by Olympia Dukakis as Marian, the no-nonsense wife of another Alzheimer’s patient, Aubrey (Michael Murphy), with whom Fiona develops an intimately supportive relationship while they’re both institutionalized. Frustrated by Fiona’s total absorption in the mute, wheelchair-bound Aubrey, Grant enters Marian’s life in order to understand Aubrey better so that he can get a little closer to Fiona. Kristen Thomson and Wendy Crewson complete the small but superb ensemble as Kristy and Madeleine, two unafflicted women who serve as the sympathetic listeners that Grant desperately seeks for the unanswerable questions he poses.

Throughout the proceedings, which are jumbled into time fragments resembling the turmoil in Fiona’s mind, a painful loss is projected on the faces of the two protagonists as they cling to each other with a grim ferocity, as if to awaken dormant memories by sheer physical force. The feeling of need involved in these transactions is too one-sided for them to work—after all, he remembers and she doesn’t. Therein lies the poignancy of Away From Her, and it makes the many recent cinematic exercises in trick memory look ridiculously trifling and trivial. Indeed, Ms. Polley’s film, for all its depth of feeling, may be too close to the real thing to qualify as feel-good entertainment. Still, I have seen few films in recent years as emotionally engrossing and edifying. It is not to be missed by any moviegoer professing to be looking for something different.

Ms. Christie’s electrifying performance also gives me an opportunity to pay belated tribute in print to the sheer pleasure she has given me since she burst upon the screen in John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar (1963). She went on to have a moderately successful career, box-office-wise and Oscar-wise, though she may have come along one or two decades too soon for the full utilization of her curiously quixotic erotic talents. I still like her best in Richard Lester’s much-underrated Petulia (1968), in which, coupled with George C. Scott in the most brilliant performance of his career, she produced a portrayal of regretfully poignant sensuality rare in that period or any other. Her only other comparable opportunity came with Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). In homage to Ms. Christie, Mr. Scott and Mr. Lester, I book Petulia every year in my film-history class at Columbia and try to sell it to my students, but they resist it, as did the critics of the time. I’ll just have to keep trying. Aging Gracefully: Christie Is a Brilliant Sunset in the Snow