Sunday, June 9, 2013

Late to the Party #1: Away From Her (2006)

Late to the Party is a recurring feature that addresses older movies, TV shows, albums, and books that I missed the first time around, for some reason or another.

We're all going to die.  What's worse is that aging is a long and winding precursor to it.  Some of us may go quickly and unexpectedly like a candle blown by the wind, but for the most part we're going to stick around to slowly decay and deteriorate.  Our looks will fade, our bodies will wear down, our minds might even go; to the point where it's hard to remember ever being young in the first place.  People you grew up with will die, so will members of your family.  If you're lucky, you'll pass away before or after your loved ones do, whichever one you prefer.  But it doesn't matter if you simply slide down the gaping black maw or go clawing away at the earth, the one truth remains constant: we are all going to die.

If you're like me, this very idea haunts you to your core.  It may even leave you quaking in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.  With that in mind, it's easy to understand why mankind would want to push the concept of our inevitable demise far into the recesses of our minds.  The last thing some people want is to be reminded of death in our art, so they seek out stories that allow them to escape from it.  After all, art is entertainment, and what's so entertaining about wriggling around in the cold grip of death's hand?  Away From Her, the directorial debut from Canadian actress Sarah Polley, is all about confronting the fact that most of us will live to grow old and deteriorate.  Based on a short story by the brilliant Alice Munro, the film is about an elderly couple (expertly played by Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie) and their struggle to deal with the onset of the wife's Alzheimer's disease, and what results is a beautiful meditation on life, love, loss, and fractured memories.

It's rare that a film just focuses on the elderly -- the only two recent ones I can think of are Mike Leigh's equally ruminative Another Year and last year's Hope Springs -- and Away From Her does a good job of portraying Grant (Pinsent) and Fiona (Christie) as a normal couple in the early scenes.  It'd be easy for this film to be nothing but a miserablist slog, but Sarah Polley is no Michael Haneke.  She has a deep understanding of the nuances of everyday life, so while the film is sad -- often devastatingly so -- it also is pretty beautiful.  The first half in particular is filled with lovely, poetic little snippets that give a bit of happiness here and a bit of longing and regret there.  Away From Her is not just about undying love, unflagging devotion, or the coldness of aging -- it's about everything all at once.  The film not only follows Munro's work in story, but more importantly in spirit.  Instead of making them bombastic and melodramatic, Polley constantly lingers on the smallness at the center of every single scene.  Life weathers us all down, not just the sick and dying, and the film is all about the things we do to try to remain upright for as long as we can.

What's most remarkable is that Sarah Polley was only 26 years old when she made this gorgeous, incredibly mature film.  While some may not want to give her credit because she already had Alice Munro's material to work from, the story could've gone completely awry in somebody else's hands.  In Polley's however, there's an aching pain that pours out of the corners of every moment, mostly because of her assured directorial flourishes.  There are visual motifs that revolve around trekking and travelling, whether it be through an open snowscape or down a narrow hallway, which is a fitting metaphor for the situation we find ourselves in.  After all, we're convinced that life is this expansive series of options and possibilities, when we're all really just making a singular march towards death.  Away From Her set up high expectations that Sarah Polley may never be able to live up to, but only because it's a work of astonishing power, raw talent, and emotional acuity.

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