Former mythology professor Grant (Gordon Pinsent) has been in love with--and married to--gorgeous spirited Fiona (a radiant Julie Christie) for more than 40 years. After some turbulence earlier in their marriage (Grant wasn't always as faithful as he is now) they've spent the last two decades in their own private haven a rustic Canadian cottage that lends itself to cross-country ski treks and intimate dinners. But their idyll is shattered when Fiona starts forgetting simple things--like what "wine" is called; they soon discover she's suffering from early onset Alzheimer's. Against Grant's desperate protests Fiona checks into a retirement facility called Meadowlands. There as Grant watches from the sidelines heartbroken she develops feelings for a fellow patient Aubrey (Michael Murphy). Ultimately Grant must figure out the best way to prove his love. Away From Her is the kind of movie that succeeds or fails almost wholly on the strength of its cast--happily in this case it's the former. Christie is all elegant grace as Fiona from her beautiful mane of white hair to her impeccable sense of style. But she's impulsive and approachable too with an earthiness that grounds her. Her sense of fun and joy is clear from the sparkle in her eyes--when that sparkle starts to dim the audience like Grant mourns its loss. As Grant Pinsent is both stoic and achingly vulnerable; he can't bear watching Fiona slip away but he also can't bring himself to cause her any more pain. In the supporting cast Kristen Thomson is refreshingly forthright as Kristy the Meadowlands nurse who always tells Grant the truth and Olympia Dukakis is believably brassy as Aubrey's wife Marian who's not quite ready to give up on life. Sarah Polley has spent plenty of hours in front of the camera but Away From Her marks the Canadian actress' feature directorial debut. She's obviously learned a lot from the talented filmmakers she's worked with particularly Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter) whose aesthetic is similarly spare and minimalistic. Although her long lingering close-ups (Christie's skin is remarkably clear; Pinsent is quite craggy) occasionally feel indulgent Polley has a knack for using light and landscape to evoke the essence of her subject matter: love marriage and loss. It helps that she had good source material to work from; the movie is based on acclaimed author Alice Munro's short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain." For a first-time feature Away From Her is impressively assured tackling tough topics with sensitivity empathy and the confidence of experience.
Like the best modernist novels The Hours on the surface is a simple slice of life detailing the events that occur on one day in the lives of three women in their three respective time periods. James Joyce used the technique of compacting time as a literary device to great effect in Ulysses following his two protagonists through the streets of Dublin on one typical but memorable June day. In a similar way Woolf placed Clarissa Dalloway's life under a microscope--for just one day--in Mrs. Dalloway. Countless other 20th-century literary greats have employed this same technique in their works and by focusing the time frame so narrowly these authors could dig more deeply into seemingly ordinary moments--enabling them to excavate a character's lifetime in the space of a few hours. Their modernist undertaking comes to cinematic fruition in The Hours the story of what happens to three women on a single day in an elegant exploration of families artists lovers and sisters. In 2001 Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) is a conflicted book editor and a lesbian who like her namesake Clarissa Dalloway is planning a bittersweet party for a former love. In the 1950s Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) is a housewife and mother who's reading Mrs. Dalloway and struggling much like Woolf or Sylvia Plath to find her identity and voice in a culture that says that as a woman she shouldn't have one. In the 1920s Woolf (Nicole Kidman) is living in the English countryside with her husband Leonard writing Mrs. Dalloway occasionally sinking into madness and always restlessly pining for the intellectual stimulation of London. Adhering the three narratives is Richard Brown (Ed Harris): The talented dying misunderstood novelist in whose honor Clarissa is throwing her party. Harris' role threads its way through the '50s segment as well and he serves as the modern-day heir to Woolf's literary legacy.
In his small but crucial role Harris gives an admirable performance and if he occasionally overdoes the "suffering AIDS victim" angst it's probably The Hours' one weakness. The rest of the supporting players give marvelous color to the film particularly Allison Janney as Clarissa's partner Sally Miranda Richardson as Woolf's sister Vanessa Bell Stephen Dillane as Leonard Woolf and Toni Collette as Laura's neighbor Kitty. But it's hard to look much better than good when those around you are exceptional--and Streep Moore and Kidman give hands down the three most solid intelligent nuanced female performances of the year in The Hours. As actors they are absorbed so completely in the characters they play that they're virtually unrecognizable as celebrities. As Woolf Kidman uses a prosthetic nose in aid of this transformation while Moore's Laura is aged in the film with the help of some excellent makeup artistry (this will probably be one of many Academy Award nominations for this movie). But it's Streep who without the aid of external devices becomes her character so completely that her slightest movement is clearly Clarissa's--you can see it happening onscreen in her every reaction. It's such a sublime performance that it's almost not a performance; it seems more like we're spying on Clarissa's interior and exterior life and she doesn't even realize the camera is following her.
Director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare don't take the easy way out of the complex literary material they tackle in The Hours--and they don't let the audience off easily either. There's no omniscient narrator tying up the loose ends in a nice neat package and there's no final authority espousing what it all means; in fact the "author " Woolf is as much a character in the tales as is anyone else--both literally and figuratively. While she's one of three protagonists the memory of her life and the legacy of her novel impact the other characters significantly. Woolf is also present in more subtle ways: Hare's screenplay employs some of her perennial themes--aging illness gender politics madness death--and Daldry works delicately with several symbols that are key in her writing (particularly flowers those ambiguous blossoms that seemed equally at home at funerals and parties to the keenly observant Woolf). Through it all The Hours offers gentle insight into female consciousness and the condition of women's lives throughout the last century. "The younger generation " Woolf told T.S. Eliot has "no sense of tradition and continuity." Novelist Cunningham Daldry and Hare have proven her wrong with The Hours.