The takeover of a woman’s mind by Alzheimer’s disease and the adjustment of a husband to this ravage of twilight aren’t sunny subjects, but they play out accessibly and touchingly in “Away From Her,” the feature filmmaking debut of actress Sarah Polley. It’s not a great movie — it suffers from inexperience at the wheel. But the winning mix of depth, perceptiveness and humanism displayed by Polley soundly suggests that she’ll make a great movie someday.
Adapted by Polley from an Alice Munro literary work, the film is a sad but life-embracing love story set in an Ontario countryside whose snowiness mirrors a deeper chill. The winter journeys of a retired professor named Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and his elegant wife of 44 years, Fiona (Julie Christie), constitute the thrust of the drama, beginning with Fiona’s increasing bouts of forgetfulness and the grim development of an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
Responding rationally, Fiona insists that she move to an assisted-living home, while the less-realistic Graham deems this step little more than temporary rehab. Reality sinks in, however, when, following a mandated monthlong separation, Graham visits the facility and finds that Fiona hardly remembers him and has become attached to a male patient, Aubrey (Michael Murphy). Is Fiona punishing Graham for his past infidelities?
When Aubrey’s removal from the facility severely depresses Fiona, Graham, angry but devoted to Fiona’s well-being, visits Aubrey’s no-nonsense wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis), and persuades her to let Aubrey visit Fiona.
Safeness and unevenness on Polley’s part mar things. Her adaptation of Munro’s story sometimes feels too literary for cinema, and the interactions can seem stagy. Supporting characters — a nurse (Kristen Thompson) who explains Fiona’s condition, movie-of-the-week style; an administrator (Wendy Crewson) who personifies institutional callousness — come off shallowly.
But offsetting these shortcomings is Polley’s mature, observant, engrossing treatment of the box-office-unfriendly subjects of aging and long-married life. A 20-something neophyte, Polley gets impressively into the crannies of marital thickets and intelligently depicts memory’s fallibility.
Away From Her ***
Starring Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent, Olympia Dukakis
Written by Sarah Polley; adapted from a story by Alice Munro
Directed by Sarah Polley
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Screening: At the Embarcadero