There’s not much I can add here that hasn’t already been covered by other critics and Mubi neighbors other than to say some films are like novels, required reading when it comes to ‘things of the heart’ or simple journeys that involve the self and those around us in a myriad of ways that are better experienced than summarized.
This film is an adaptation of a short story which is a promising idea, since many novels are poor adaptations because you simply cannot get all the novel into the film – at least not without creating a mini-series and we don’t have those on the big screen – yet. While director Sarah Polley is Canadian this isn’t a particularly Canadian film, meaning the themes are transcendent and effective across any geographic and/or demographic region. The struggle is dealing with older characters facing a terrible disease. That is Polley’s uphill challenge but casting Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent were clearly great choices going in and led the audience to a kind of connection as though we were watching family or distant relatives. We didn’t need to break out the old 8mm or 16mm projector without sound either. No black and white here. This was intended to be an upfront love affair – a relationship with the self, with your closest other, and with the chasm between life and death where sometimes the mind goes long before the body does. This is where Polley operates, close to frozen ground, very near the earth.
Where the film fails at all is at times with pace, plodding at times as though snow boots after a fresh snow storm, we hear ever footfall and huff of breath, we sense the plumb of hot air coming from the mouth and the bloodshot eyes and while one might fall in love with the minutiae as in say a Pablo Neruda poem, this is cinema and as such long breaks from conventional plot progression can be a challenge for some. I for one took it all in and lavished in the possibilities my own mind brought to the failing mind of the Christie’s character and I felt moved and angry and connected to Pinsent like an older brother, like my Uncle who has lived alone for twenty years and will die that way. These are the powerful traits you need in your characters when story is background and plot is there for moments to remind you of the journey you started when the lights went down in the theater.
I cannot help but recall my own short film, Once Beautiful Past – http://www.oncebeautifulpast.com which I completed at the Academy of Art University around the time Polley’s film was released. About a father who has lost tough with his daughter, he discovers he has the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and decides he wants to reconnect with her over Thanksgiving dinner but his girlfriend and her boyfriend threaten to dash any hopes of a family reunion.
Away From Her is a heavy film but rarely sinks beneath the burden of the subject matter, instead elevated by soulful, moving performances and far reaching consequences that resonate with us long after we’ve finished the credits. Polley the actor continues to find work (Splice with Adrien Brody recently) but Polley the director will continue as it is apparent she has something to say and the means with which to say it.