It's a truth that bears repeating: A movie as good as "Away From Her" can't possibly be depressing.
Haunting? To be sure. Heart-piercingly poignant? Without a doubt.
But it's far from depressing -- indeed, at times it's downright exhilarating -- to watch a movie as quietly precise and emotionally insightful as "Away From Her."
Buoyed by standout performances from Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent (an actor much beloved in his native Canada and little-known south of the border), "Away From Her" focuses on the long, wrenching goodbye between a long-married couple.
Both Fiona (Christie) and Grant (Pinsent), together for 44 years, know something's wrong. In moments small and large, in lapses brief and lasting, Fiona's losing her grip on her surroundings -- and herself, "disappearing, bit by bit," as she says, into the advancing haze of Alzheimer's disease.
That disappearance leads to an assisted-living facility where Fiona can disappear with dozens of other patients. Grant visits every day, desperately trying to remind his wife of their decades-long bond -- while Fiona transfers her affections to Aubrey (Michael Murphy), a feeble, wheelchair-bound patient, because she's forgotten all about Grant and the life they shared for so long.
Desperate to understand this behavior, Grant seeks answers from the facility's briskly efficient director (Wendy Crewson) and a supervising nurse (Kristen Thomson) who understands, only too well, some of what he's going through. Grant even visits Aubrey's no-nonsense wife (an acerbic Olympia Dukakis) to put the situation in perspective.
But, of course, it's not possible to put things into perspective -- unless that perspective includes the rueful recognition that there is no putting things into perspective.
Adapting Alice Munro's short story "The Bear Went Over the Mountain," writer-director Sarah Polley (making her feature directing debut while still in the early stages of an exemplary acting career) maintains Munro's splintered storytelling style, flashing backward and forward in time.
In adapting Munro's spare but poignant story, Polley occasionally slips between page and stage, allowing the dialogue to sound more like a thematic summation than something spoken by one of her flawed, fragile characters.
With the caliber of actors she's assembled for "Away From Her," however, that's hardly a problem.
Pinsent carries much of the movie's narrative weight on his craggy shoulders, combining desperation and devotion in equally powerful measure.
Even more powerfully, Christie captures Fiona's shifting realities in exquisitely subtle detail, summoning more than the "little bit of grace" her character counts on to help her negotiate the ravages of time -- and the disease erasing her past, her mind, her very identity.
As a result, "Away From Her" is hardly what you'd call a "feel-good" movie. Unless, of course, seeing a moving story, movingly told, makes you feel good -- because it makes you feel.