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With Away From Her, Sarah Polley goes straight to the top for directorial achievement. I say that with assurance because Ms Polley is also the sole (credited) party responsible for adapting Alice Munro's unforgettable story, "The Bear Came Over the Mountain." As adaptations go, this is one of the best. It sticks to the original as much as possible but feels free to alter the narrative line for cinematic purposes and to invent complementary scenes and characters, without ever risking the gratuitous. Ms Munro's story is one of her big ones, clocking in at just under fifty pages in the closely-printed Everyman's Library collection that appeared last year. But Ms Polley has seen fit to let it out in all the right places.
The usual moviegoer's dilemma (do I want to see this movie or not?) boils down here to this: Alzheimer's (no!) and Julie Christie (yes!). To be perfectly honest, the heavy lifting in Away From Her is done by Gordon Pinsent, a Canadian actor whom we haven't seen nearly enough despite his long career, and by Olympia Dukakis, who for once gets to appear in bed with another man, possibly naked. This isn't to say that Ms Christie isn't fabulous. But part of being fabulous means being spared the heavy lifting. Everyone wants to look at Julie Christie, even now, when at times she seems to have developed a resemblance, de temps en temps, to Ginger Rogers in her prime. There are moments when she looks like the Julie Christie you remember, but they are fleeting, and sometimes she just looks like somebody else. But she is always very beautiful, always someone who merits the observation, which Mr Pinsent's character makes of hers, that she has "the spark of life." In any case, so far as resolving the moviegoer's dilemma goes, Ms Christie trumps Alzheimer's by a long shot.
This despite the fact that where the story has most been let out is in its handling of a dreadful disease that never seems to disfigure Fiona (Ms Christie) herself. Even though there are fewer and fewer people every year who can claim innocence of its ravages, great pains are taken to inform the audience very precisely about how Alzheimer's "progresses." Ms Polley has transformed Ms Munro's descriptive passages about the layout of Meadowlake - the facility into which Fiona feels that she must retire - into a handful of variously-afflicted characters who bring home the awfulness of this affliction to a degree that no one in the short story does. This keeps Away From Her from seeming precious; it sets the remarkable love story that Ms Munro tells in a grittier world than would have suited the writer's purposes. If the adaptation is seriously unfaithful to the story at all, it is with respect to a passage toward the end, when Grant (Mr Pinsent), having failed to convince Marian (Ms Dukakis) to return her husband, Aubrey (Michael Murphy) - with whom Fiona has been in love since the first month of her stay - to Meadowlake, reflects,
And yet in some depressing way the conversation had not been unfamiliar to him. That was because it reminded him of conversations he'd had with people in his own family. His uncles, his relatives, probably even his mother, had thought the way Marian thought. They had believed that when other people did not think that way it was because they were kidding themselves - they had got too airy-fairy, or were stupid, on account of their easy and protected lives or their education. They had lost touch with reality. Educated people, literary people, some rich people like Grant's socialist in-laws had lost touch with reality. Due to an unmerited good fortune or an innate silliness. In Grant's case, he suspected, they pretty well believed it was both.
That was how Marian would see him, certainly. A silly person, full of boring knowledge and protected by some fluke from the truth about life. A person who didn't have to worry about holding on to his house and could go around thinking his complicated thoughts. Free to dream up the fine, generous schemes that he believed would make another person happy.
What a jerk, she would be thinking now.
If Grant in the film is troubled by these doubts, we never see it. He is a bluff, quietly leonine man who is doing everything that he can think of to keep his wife ambulatory, because, if she takes to her bed, she'll have to be shipped to the dreaded "second floor," where the more "advanced" cases wear out their spells. There is nothing "airy-fairy" about Mr Pinsent's Grant, because the movie is more determined than Ms Munro to make us share Grant's horror of Meadowlake and its euphemisms. Even so, Ms Polley has the wit to have Marian say, after she has closed the door on Grant, "What a jerk!"
Another way in which Ms Polley has opened up the film is by expanding the role of the supervisor, Madeleine Montpellier (Wendy Crewson), partly by giving her new material and partly by giving her the harsher lines that Kristy (Kristen Thomas) - the only nurse who will talk with Grant seriously - has to utter. Kristy's part is enlarged, too. There's a wonderful scene in which Kristy takes up a possibility that Grant has mentioned earlier (indiscretions unthinkable in the story), which is that Fiona is punishing him for the slew of minor infidelities that he felt were almost thrust upon him as a young and personable professor. (If there's one strength that the story has over the movie, it's in its much richer discussion of Grant's philandering.) In the film, Kristy abrades some of Grant's fastidiousness about Meadowlake.
If you'd never read "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," would you care about anything I've said here? But of course you've read it, or are going to read it, before you see the picture. It is one of the great short stories of the last fifty years. And Away From Her is one of the best movies.
Copyright (c) 2007 Pourover Press