To describe actress Sarah Polley's debut feature makes it sound like a long lost Twilight Zone episode. In a snowy, remote corner of Canada, a college professor watches his wife slowly turn into a zombie. One day, she's putting pots and pans in the freezer; the next, she's forgotten where she lives. In the rare moments when she's lucid, she exclaims things like, "I think maybe I'm beginning to disappear."
Given scenes like those, it may come as a surprise that Away from Her is not, in fact, a sci-fi tale but a drama about a marriage cut short though not ended by Alzheimer's disease. But before you decide to stay home, it should be noted that Polley, a compassionate, perceptive performer in her own right, has no intention of force-feeding her audience a pat, heartwarming "issue" picture. Instead, she's crafted one of those rare screenplays that forces you to reconsider your feelings as it goes along, and her generous, heartfelt direction allows even the tiniest characters to make a big impact.
Expanding upon a short story by Alice Munro, Polley at first hones in on the devoted but slightly haunted couple in question, the 60-something Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie). The scale is intimate doctor's offices, walks in the park, dinners with friends but the emotions are huge. In the details you can see evidence of a life far more cosmopolitan and intellectual: Fiona is still ravishingly smart and beautiful, and Grant's contempt for the drab rest home in which he's forced to leave her is palpable (not to mention darkly funny).
Moments like those make it clear Polley isn't interested in the standard tragic-martyrdom arc of most stories about mental illness. Where the rest home actually gives Fiona some stability, it sends Grant off the edge, as he starts to view her increasingly distant, addled responses to him as a payback for unacknowledged infidelities.
Like many first films, Away from Her is rough around the edges: Some of the flashbacks have the cheap quality of a student film, and Polley is way too fond of using dissolves as a narrative device. But she gets all the big stuff right: Everything from the dialogue to the production design feels real, lived-in. Where most first-time directors latch on to hip genre scripts or faddish techniques, Polley is more interested in quietly observing her peers, and it speaks volumes for her potential.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.