Wednesday, December 13, 2006

27. Canadian Sarah Polley's "Away from Her" (2006): Remarkable debut film and a superb performance by Julie Christie


Julie Christie's combination of talent, beauty and brains has enthralled me over four decades. Nearly a decade ago, her Oscar nominated performance in "Afterglow" established that she was not a spent force while playing a gracefully aging wife of a handyman in the US. One thought that would be her best turn at geriatric impersonations.

Less than a decade later, Christie comes up with an even better performance of a woman coping with Alzheimer's disease in a debut directorial effort Away from Her of Canadian actress Sarah Polley. I saw the film yesterday at the ongoing International Film Festival of Kerala, India, where Ms Christie, serving on the jury for the competition section, introduced her film thus: "It is immaterial whether you are rich or poor--we cannot predict what can happen to us. Enjoy the film with this thought." Ms Christie probably put in her best effort because the young director considers Ms Christie to be her "adoptive" mother, having worked together on three significant movie projects in five years. The film's subject brings memories of two similar films: Pierre Granier-Deferre' film Le Chat that won a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for both Jean Gabin and Simone Signoret in 1971 and Paul Mazursky's Harry and Tonto which won an Oscar for the lead actor Art Carney in 1974. This performance of Julie Christie ranks alongside those winners.

Today geriatric care is a growing problem. This film is a sensitive look at parting of married couples when one of them needs institutional care. Ms Polley's choice of the actor Gordon Pinsent is an intelligent one as the film relies on his narration and Mr Pinsent's deep voice provides the right measure of gravitas. Olympia Dukakis is another fine actor playing a lady who has "quit quitting". So is Michael Murphy doing a long role without saying a word.

The strengths of the film are the subject, the direction, the performances and the seamless editing by the director's spouse. It is not a film that will attract young audiences who are insensitive. Yet the film has a evocative scene where a young teenager with several part of her body pierced by rings is totally amazed by the devotion of the aging husband for his wife. So in a way the film reaches out to different age groups. Though it talks about sex, it can be safe family viewing material.

Chances are that most viewers will love the film if they are interested in films that are different from "the American films that get shown in multiplexes" to quote a character in the film. More importantly this film advertises the problem of Alzheimer's disease eloquently and artistically. It prepares you for future shocks.

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