LITTLE ROCK Heartbreaking and deftly sketched, Sarah Polley's Away From Her is evidence of a prepossessing cinematic intelligence in the John Cassavetes mode. While we might have suspected that Polley - an actress of considerable talent and excellent taste - could one day make a movie as affecting and austere as this, this doesn't look or feel like the directorial debut of a 28-year-old.
Based on the Alice Munro short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," Away From Her traces the progress of an elegant old academic couple who've survived a sometimes-tumultuous 44-year marriage and seem to have settled into an approximation of bliss in a book-stuffed cabin in north Ontario. Fiona (a luminous Julie Christie) and Grant (Gordon Pinsent) have, above all, an understanding that makes the airing of grievances beside the point. He knows that she knows, and so they never have to talk about it. Besides, itwas so long ago - he has spent 20 years making it up to her.
But now Fiona, lovely and fit, has become forgetful, and taken to putting frying pans in the freezer. Again, she knows - and he knows that she knows - she's going. It's not long before her symptoms become more troubling; she takes off on crosscountry skis and winds up confused on the side of the road.
They decide together that the only way to preserve her dignity is to place her in an assisted living facility, a comfortable, banally shiny institution headed by a briskly efficient director (Wendy Crewson) who would have been right at home administrating Belsen. Compounding Grant's trepidation at letting Fiona go (she insists it's a necessary step) is a policy that forbids new admissions from having any visitors in the first month so that they can have a chance to settle in. Or perhaps,as the candid nurse (a wonderfully acerbic Kristen Thomson) suggests, they do it for the convenience of the staff.
When Grant is finally allowed to visit Fiona, he finds that she has formed an attachment to another resident, a hulking, wheelchair-bound man named Aubrey (Michael Murphy) who seems to communicate in grunts and gestures. She attends to Aubrey's every need and seems barely cordial to Grant, whom she treats like a persistent, not-quite-welcome suitor. Their estrangement is sad and strange as Fiona finally breaks free of Grant just as he's becoming unconditionally and unselfishly devoted to her.
It's this new devotion as much as sublimated guilt that puts Grant at the front door of Aubrey's practical-minded wife (Olympia Dukakis) with an unconventional idea to improve Fiona's quality of life.
Polley retains Munro's wonderful rigor with her characters - they are all, to some degree, creatures of folly who are liable to self-deception. She resists the temptation to pump uplift into Munro's austere, icy scenario. In the end, you understand that Grant and Fiona's complicated relationship has not been simplified by her illness; things don't get easier or better defined. There are only good intentions and groping toward an accommodation.
Lovely and cold as a Nordic winter sky, Away From Her is a lacerating, tough movie that's sometimes hard to watch - and impossible to forget.
MovieStyle, Pages 48 on 06/15/2007