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Unlocked Memories
Julie Christie Returns to Dazzle in 'Away From Her'

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 11, 2007

When did you fall in love with her?

Was it "Dr. Zhivago"? "Darling"? "Shampoo"?

On every continent, in every language, anywhere there was a dark room, a strip of celluloid and a light bulb, part of what it meant to go to the movies over the past 50 years has been to fall in love with Julie Christie. She's the female corollary to what they always said about James Bond (or was it Steve McQueen?): Men want to be with her, women want to be her.

And it still holds true, as Christie proves in the exquisite, closely observed "Away From Her," a quietly shattering portrait of a marriage in which she delivers yet another incandescent star turn. As a woman in the early throes of Alzheimer's, Christie proves yet again that she's an actress not just of supreme physical beauty but finely tuned sensitivity.

Fiona and Grant (Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent) have built a wonderful life over 45 years of marriage, spending what look like truly golden years enjoying a lovely lakeside cottage in a companionable balance of robust physical exercise and quietude. They're 60-is-the-new-40 people: attractive, still sexy, cross-country skiing every day, wearing jeans and funky sweaters. When Fiona distractedly puts a frying pan in the freezer, it's a moment that could happen to anyone half her age; when she forgets the word for "wine" during dinner with friends, Grant laughs it off with a quick, kind joke.

But it's not a joke, and as Fiona's gaps become more pronounced -- and like the good professor's wife that she is, she begins to read up on memory loss, finally deciding matter-of-factly that she should move into a continuing care facility. "Away From Her," which first-time writer-director Sarah Polley adapted from Alice Munro's short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," chronicles the ebb and flow of Fiona's awareness, as well as Grant's own reluctant realization that, to keep the love of his life, he has to let her go.

There's a karmic twist to "Away From Her": Fiona's retreat into her long-term memories happens to bring a skein of unresolved issues and unspoken bitterness to the surface. Feelings are complicated even further when Fiona begins keeping company with another patient, a brooding stroke victim played by Michael Murphy.

The conflicts that have long percolated under the smooth surface of things are never made explicit; instead, Polley makes skillful use of subtlety and allusion, gracefully navigating a story of knotty temporal challenges and ethical nuances. In its delicacy and understatement, "Away From Her" may remind viewers of "The Sweet Hereafter," the movie Polley starred in that was directed by Atom Egoyan, who is one of her executive producers here. His influence is palpable in a production whose power lies not in self-conscious visuals or theatrics, but watchful observation and an unwavering tonal control.

That tone ranges from elegiac to pragmatic to frankly erotic as Grant and Fiona simultaneously explore the past and embark on the future of their marriage. Rarely has love at any age been depicted so honestly on screen, and the fact that such a fully realized portrait has been created by a 28-year-old first-time director makes it all the more remarkable. Polley even manages to inject some gentle humor into the proceedings, often involving one of Fiona's co-residents, a former play-by-play sports announcer who has turned his talents to the goings-on around him.

Every choice -- from music to photography to editing -- is flawless, but clearly her biggest coup is in casting. Pinsent is a revelation as a man of equal parts professorial ego and reticence, and Olympia Dukakis, as the wife of Fiona's new friend, cuts briskly through Grant's slightly snobby rectitude with wry self-awareness. (Polley has even slyly tapped the audience's collective distant memory in casting Murphy -- who co-starred with Christie in "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" 36 years ago -- as Fiona's nursing home beau.)

But the radiant, vital heart of "Away From Her" is Christie, who at 66 proves she is still one of cinema's most spectacular screen objects. That lambent gaze, the cascading hair, the dazzling smile -- she seems lit from within, taking the audience's breath away, and we're watching "Darling" or "Shampoo" all over again. (It's as if we're Fiona, and time has stopped, lurched forward, gone back again: Who is this delicious creature?)

But as startling as Christie's physical presence is in "Away From Her," her triumph lies in a performance of exceptional restraint and judgment, in which she somehow simultaneously conveys presence and absence, a still-vibrant bundle of gorgeous contradictions. At one point, Fiona asks Grant how she looks. "Direct and vague, sweet and ironic," he tells her. That's Christie, all the way through this poetic testament to simple devotion. She's still the love of our movie lives, and we never want to be away from her, either.

Away From Her (110 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for some profanity.

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