Watching Away From Her, the audience isn’t supposed to believe in Julie Christie as actress; writer-director Sarah Polley uses her as iconography, and with those magnificent cheekbones and that wan elusiveness flickering behind her eyes, who could blame her? When I watched the cold drift of Alzheimer’s into her brain mimic the piling of Canadian snow that Polley shoots with such care, I was reminded of what Pauline Kael once wrote about Cary Grant (in the arty misfire None But The Lonely Heart): when he’s in pain it touches the audience in a special way, because it’s Cary Grant. I didn’t grow up with the Christie of Darling and Dr. Zhivago; I admired the distracted manner in which she regarded her own beauty, and her audience’s relation to it, in movies like McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Shampoo. I can only blame the lack of product in recent years to her own reluctance, which is a pity: she was a marvelous Gertrude in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, ragged and desolate; and the otherwise baffling Afterglow was a really great star turn.
Explicit and reliant on too many “poetic” shots of landscape, Away From Her nevertheless avoids the trap of so many adapatations of short stories of literalizing the microscopic. If Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over The Mountain” used what Wallace Stevens called the “inanimate with an inert savoir” to explain the glibly cheerful certainties on which Grant and Fiona have relied for over forty years, Polley’s film flirts with the merely glib in the first twenty minutes, which are the weakest: by forcing the audience to regard Christie-the-star going through the paces of dementia, we’re too conscious of Gordon Pinset aiming for small, precise notes; it’s a grievous, if touching, mismatch. Luckily the film centers on his own pain, and like Munro’s story it’s ruthless at exposing a specific kind of male bullshit while respecting his essential decency.
What an eye Polley has for faces: as Christie’s senility deepens, so does Polley’s concentration on physical deterioration. It’s safe to say that Christie has never, ever looked so beautiful. Although her performance doesn’t touch Katherine Hepburn’s portrait of shrinking violet dignity in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, she’s fascinating to watch for similar reasons: this exquisite porcelain of a camera subject is too poised to believe as an Alzheimer’s victim, yet I came to admire her and Polley’s deconstruction of what made her a star in the first place. And Pinset is a wonder: as stoic and bearded as Victor Sjostrom and Erland Josephson in their Bergman films. Special bouquets to Kristen Thomson, whose nurse fools the audience (and Pinset) into thinking she’s sympathetic, until she unloads on Pinset in a scene of devastating appropriateness. The only misfire is Olympia Dukakis, playing a tough old broad as a Tough Old Broad (think Elaine Stritch or Ethel Barrymore) and forced to deliver the script’s more tendentious lines.
Ultimately what gives Away From Her its poignance is its barely suppressed nostalgia — once upon a time audiences could revel in the topography of an actor’s face, not to establish a chimera of shared humanity, but to reenforce the distance between them and us. That the twenty-eight-year-old Polley’s film tries and fails to dissolve this distance is no blemish; she believes in enough of the old myths to want to tweak them too. This makes her an artist to watch.