Some people go from the frying pan into the fire. Fiona (Julie Christie) leaps from the frying pan into the icebox when she places the skillet in the freezer and recognizes it not as absentmindedness, but as the onset of Alzheimer's that will overwhelm her marriage of 44 years.

An incisive character study from rookie filmmaker Sarah Polley, Away From Her is a triumph for Christie, who grows lovelier and more compelling with every performance.

It is likewise a triumph for Polley, the Canadian actress of The Sweet Hereafter and Guinevere. At the relatively young age of 28, she has composed a heartbreaking elegy to mature love that honors the lovers and the long, neurodegenerative tango that is their last.

Polley fragments her narrative, flashing forward and back in time, to suggest Fiona's agitated mental state. Polley's imagery, the blanket of snow that covers the landmarks familiar to Fiona, the bunch of yellow flowers that might otherwise suggest the renewal of life and of memory, lingers long after the film ends.

Fiona and he

Away From Her ***1/2 (out of four stars)

Directed by Sarah Polley, written by Polley based on the short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" by Alice Munro, distributed by Lions Gate Films. With Julie Christie, Michael Murphy, Gordon Pinsent, Olympia Dukakis and Kristen Thomson.

Running time: 1 hour, 50 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13

Playing at: Ritz Five, Showcase at the Ritz CenterEndText

r husband, Grant (veteran Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent), a retired university professor, live by a lake as seemingly serene as their marriage. They are lusty septuagenarians, cozy in each other's company, fitting together like puzzle pieces. Fiona begins losing first language, and then her mind.

Because she can't bear the thought of Gordon's seeing her deteriorate and because she wants to spare him the caregiver's gruntwork, Fiona asks to be taken to a facility. Its impersonal director immediately alienates Gordon with her brisk efficiency, though a helpful nurse steers him through the emotional minefield as Fiona withdraws into Alzheimerland. Gordon worries, is his wife expressing feelings that she has long repressed?

As Fiona, Christie's halo of silver-gold hair and sulfur-blue eyes radiate the heat and colors of a consuming blaze. In the actress' heartstopping performance, Fiona's flame slowly dwindles and flickers out.

Pinsent, an actor who resembles a cello with a beard and speaks in the requisite mellow tones, carries the picture with his soothing voice and anguished eyes that convey guilt, passion and heartbreak.

And also these unanswerable questions: How do you connect with your love as she becomes increasingly detached? How do you say goodbye to her though she doesn't recognize you? How do you resist thinking Alzheimer's is a punishment for previous marital transgressions?

In her sensitive adaptation of the Alice Munro short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," Polley has created a meditation of marriage, love and dementia.


Bring tissues.