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'Away From Her': Into Blankness, Beautifully
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'Away From Her': Into Blankness, Beautifully

Arts & Life


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

The new film "Away From Her" marks the return of sorts for actress Julie Christie, a big star of the 1960s who hasn't made a lot of films in recent years. It's also a debut of sorts for Sarah Polley, a young actress who stepped behind the camera to direct for the first time. Together they made a film that moved critic Bob Mondello.

BOB MONDELLO: Fiona and her retired husband, Grant, have just returned from cross-country skiing when we meet them and are washing dishes, a simple thing. Grant hands his wife a frying pan, and Fiona puts it away - in the freezer. Fiona is sophisticated, articulate, elegant, and slipping away - Alzheimer's.

But she's still decisive enough that after she gets lost one day near their home, she can make the decision her husband can't - to check into an institution. To his alarm, it requires that she not have visitors for her first 30 days.

(Soundbite of movie "Away From Her")

Ms. JULIE CHRISTIE (Actress): (As Fiona) I'd like to say goodbye to my husband. We haven't been apart for months for the last 44 years. It'd be quite something.

(Soundbite of footsteps and closing door)

Mr. GORDON PINSENT (Actor): (As Grant) Please, Fiona.

Ms. CHRISTIE: (As Fiona) Grant?

Mr. PINSENT: (As Grant) Fiona.

Ms. CHRISTIE: (As Fiona) You know what I'd like? I'd like to make love and then I'd like you to go because I need to stay here, and if you make it hard for me, I'm going to cry so hard I'll never stop.

MONDELLO: Grant somehow tears himself away, and a month later returns to find Fiona fitting in nicely. She is watching a man in a wheelchair playing cards. And when Grant captures her eye, she smiles and joins him on a couch across the room.

(Soundbite of movie "Away From Her")

Mr. PINSENT: (As Grant) I brought you some flowers. I thought they might do to brighten up your room. I went to your room, but you weren't there.

Ms. CHRISTIE: (As Fiona) Well, no, I'm here. I'd better go back. He thinks he can't play without me sitting there. It's silly. I hardly know the game anymore. If you ask that grim-looking lady over there nicely, she'd get you a cup of tea.

Mr. PINSENT: (As Grant) No, I'm fine.

Ms. CHRISTIE: (As Fiona) I can leave you then? You can entertain yourself? Most will seem strange here, but you'll be surprised how soon you get used to it.

MONDELLO: And with that phrase, Grant realizes his wife hasn't actually recognized him. "Away From Her" is based on an Alice Munro short story called "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," a generous, deceptively simple portrait simply brought to life on screen. Gordon Pinsent's Grant is gruff and bearish. Julie Christie's Fiona, gorgeous and exquisitely blank.

Even in the actress' "Doctor Zhivago" days, there was something remote, vaguely chilly about her beauty, and never has that chill been used as effectively as it is by director Sarah Polley. As Fiona withdraws over months of visits, Christie's eyes tell you less and less, until the moment when Grant sees her in a garish sweater he knows she'd never wear and confronts her.

(Soundbite of movie "Away From Her")

Mr. PINSENT: (As Grant) Fiona, I'm your husband. Fiona, it's Grant. We've been married for 45 years. Look at me, Fiona. We've had a good life together. Those are your words, Fiona - not mine. That is not your sweater.

MONDELLO: Fearful and confused, she pulls him into a corridor and looks pleadingly into his eyes.

(Soundbite of movie "Away From Her")

Ms. CHRISTIE: (As Fiona) Please don't. Please, please don't. You're very persistent, aren't you? Well, see you again tomorrow, I suppose.

MONDELLO: And she's gone again - still there but gone. In concentrating on Christie's performance, I don't mean to slight the work of her costar, Gordon Pinsent, who in "Away From Her" must convey as much with his eyes as she's withholding with hers about a long-ago betrayal and a looming sacrifice, and a love that seems to grow even as he feels himself slipping away from her.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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