Films concerning the over 50s are rare and when the do come along - Sunshine Boys, Driving Miss Daisy - they generally search for the comedy in the ageing process, or poke fun at the elderly.

Sarah Polley's assured directing debut, is therefore doubly daring and most welcome, taking a serious subject - the onset of Alzheimer's - and allowing it to have full dramatic weight.

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Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent put in stand-out performances as Fiona and Grant, a couple who find their lives falling apart after it becomes clear Fiona is losing her memory.

When Fiona wanders off in body as well as mind, one day, she realises she is on the brink of the Alzheimer's abyss and makes Grant put her into a home - against his better judgment. He then begins the inexorable, painful process of watching her vanish. "I'm beginning to disappear, but I'm not gone yet," Fiona tells him, but you can see in his eyes that it is only a matter of time.

As Fiona loses the present - largely forgetting Grant and founding a new emotional bond with a fellow patient - he finds himself facing the layers of his past and has to battle guilt at the same time as mourning her loss, while the ruthless efficiency of the nursing home plays out behind him.

There are moments of levity but, as in life, they are brief and often dark. What lingers is the feeling of helplessness that will be familiar to anyone who has watched a loved one succumb to Alzheimer's or a similar illness, particularly at the points when Fiona experiences startling flashes of clarity.

Christie is brilliant as steely but brittle Fiona, a woman who knows her mind completely and yet, in the end, cannot hang on to it, while Pinsent eloquently portrays the gradual ebbing away of a partnership, as delicate and unstoppable as snow-melt.

The film is not quite perfect. There is a secondary relationship late in the runtime, which despite involving the wonderful Olympia Dukakis, feels a little pat and, in fairness, Christie is always portrayed as 'Alzheimer's lite', ever beautiful like a fading flower to the last, which is taking some poetic licence with a disease which leaves many physically as well as mentally ravaged.

Despite this, the heart of the film flutters against your emotions and the issues call for tissues. If this is what Polley can achieve at a first attempt, one can only imagine how wonderful her films will be once she's had a little more practice.

Reviewed on: 03 Feb 2007
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Away From Her packshot
A married couple come to terms with Alzheimer's. Enjoying a limited Valentine's re-release in some London cinemas.
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Read more Away From Her reviews:

Amber Wilkinson ****

Director: Sarah Polley

Writer: Sarah Polley, adapted from the story by Alice Monro

Starring: Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent, Olympia Dukakis, Michael Murphy, Kristen Thomson, Wendy Crewson, Alberta Watson

Year: 2006

Runtime: 110 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: Canada


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