Away From Her

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This film was originally reviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The pain of watching a spouse succumb to Alzheimer's is given a particularly deep and sensitive treatment in "Away From Her," an Alice Munro adaptation marking the feature writing-directing debut for actress Sarah Polley. The film will strike a chord with older viewers and should benefit from strong word-of-mouth, though its subject matter will limit wide boxoffice appeal.

In an emotionally guarded but highly sympathetic turn, Canadian vet Gordon Pinsent plays Grant, husband for four decades to Julie Christie's Fiona. The couple's idyllic life in a snowbound cottage - which they've shared for the 20 years since Grant fled the seductions of an academic career - grows fragile as Fiona's tendency to forget what things are called or where they belong (we first see her putting a freshly washed skillet away in the freezer) grows beyond the point where it can be ignored or joked away.

While still lucid, Fiona insists (over Grant's objections) that she move into an assisted-living facility. Once she's there, Grant must cope with a second heartbreak: After watching her personality ebb away, he sees the diminished Fiona form a deep attachment - nonsexual but spouselike - to a male resident.

Both leads give rich performances in roles that do not feature the kind of showy "acting" scenes that often crop up in movies of this sort. Polley is attentive to her cast without cueing us to marvel at their skill. Similarly, she crafts tender scenes - the couple dancing to Neil Young's "Harvest Moon," for instance - that are bittersweet without even leaning toward the maudlin.

While Christie's job - beginning the film as a radiant if worried woman and whittling herself away to the point where she can barely get out of bed and can use only a few stock phrases to communicate with her husband - may present the most obvious challenges, the film devotes more attention to Pinsent's Grant, whose defining characteristic is steady support of a partner who is slipping through his fingers.

Just when that steadiness threatens to become oppressively sad, the story finds bright moments in a sly performance by Olympia Dukakis, who plays the wife of the man (Michael Murphy) with whom Fiona has bonded. The two healthy spouses provide some degree of optimism for members of the audience who will surely be envisioning themselves in their shoes.

Polley's direction is modest, rarely calling attention to the camera and employing only effects (grainy flashbacks, the glowing foyer of a facility whose management brags about an abundance of "natural light") that are called for by the story. She relishes the written word, especially as enlivened by the warm rumble of Pinsent's voice, which can make even the decay of neurons sound like sticky poetry. But she doesn't play up the story's literary origins with lots of voice-over - instead allowing this short and heartbreaking chapter in a long relationship to stand on its own.

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