Dignity and Deception: Christie Shines in 'Away from Her'; 'Valet' Is Energetic Farce

Article excerpt

Away from Her, a movie on the effects of Alzheimer's disease, will seem a daunting experience for many, even if it includes Julie Christie, the star of such classic 1960s films as "Darling" and "Doctor Zhivago." But young Canadian writer/director Sarah Polley has made a powerfully tender work from her painful material. Based on a short story by Alice Munro, "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," Ms. Polley has filled "Away From Her" with incredible grace, warmth and humor. The aging but still stunning Ms. Christie plays Fiona, a woman who is slowly losing her battle with illness. Closely observed by her college professor husband, Grant (Gordon Pinsent), she moves from forgetfulness to increasing cognitive failures that require her placement in a care facility.

The story is about the deep changes the move brings to both of them. Moving in and out of confusion, Fiona shows a surprising acceptance of her illness, while Grant begins a long struggle with denial. Once in the home, she quickly develops a relationship with another male patient, Aubrey (Michael Murphy), whose illness is more advanced than hers. She constantly caters to her new friend, much to Grant's dismay, since she now fails to recognize him as her husband when he makes his daily visits.

He lumbers like a great wounded bear through much of the film, as helplessness and jealousy press in on his normally rational psyche. At one point, he feels she is punishing him for long-ago indiscretions with his young coed students--affairs that ironically are some of the last memories she has retained. He adopts an uneasy restraint and mutely accepts his fate until he visits Aubrey's no-nonsense wife (Olympia Dukakis), initially in an effort to help his wife. Strangely, they too begin to connect in a slow and strained manner.

Ultimately, "Away from Her" is an intimate reflection on the continuing need we have for others; in the end, we are made human by the strength of the relationships we make and nurture. The film establishes this understanding with a marvelous combination of humanity and humor, its supporting characters offering both. The day nurse (Kristen Thomson), in whom Grant confides daily, is a rock of realism, while the ex-sportscaster patient who loudly announces the play-by-play doings of fellow residents provides welcome bursts of humor.

Early on in her illness, Fiona says she feels as if she is disappearing, and the director gives us that fragile look throughout the film. A true winter's tale, it is shot in the snow-laden Ontario woods, where the white flatness of the landscape matches the evolving blankness of Fiona's mind. The cinematography creates an ethereal world in which the actors, overlit in many scenes, appear so frail one is afraid they will evaporate into the screen. And through the use of several lap dissolves, people do disappear, just as visitors to the home slowly slip away from their loved ones.

There are strong performances in this film, but Ms. Christie's stands out. Like all great actresses, she does some of her best work when she has no lines at all. She is able to transmit bewilderment and confidence within the same shot, through the simplest movements and facial turnings. …