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.
White Oleander focuses on teen beauty Astrid Magnusson (Alison Lohman) and her equally beautiful mother Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer) an accomplished--if self-centered and manipulative--artist who tends to drag her daughter a budding artist in her own right into her own neuroses. To Astrid however her mother is a goddess--at least until police charge Ingrid with poisoning her lover in a fit of jealousy and she is sentenced to life imprisonment. Astrid is immediately placed into the foster care program and each new home presents a different set of rules for the young girl. There's life with Starr (Robin Wright Penn) an alcoholic-turned-born-again-Christian who becomes violently jealous of Astrid. There's life in a child-welfare institution where Astrid meets Paul (Patrick Fugit) a comic book artist with whom she immediately connects. Then there's life with Claire (Renee Zellweger) a lonely woman who can't have children of her own and whose husband (Noah Wyle) is never home. Claire shows Astrid the kind of genuine love the girl has never experienced but Ingrid haunts them needling and sabotaging her daughter's happiness at every turn. Astrid could simply go off the deep end but instead she becomes more resilient ultimately reaching a place where she can love her mother without letting her destroy her life. Sapville.
The acting talent in Oleander is definitely the movie's saving grace. The actresses make the film's trite dialogue almost palatable. Pfeiffer is amazingly beautiful and strong as Ingrid and she manages to burn the character into our brains even when she's not on the screen. Ingrid's relationship with her daughter is at times hard to watch: Ingrid digs at Astrid to try and control her but all this really does is expose Ingrid's own insecurities and failings as a mother. Pfeiffer relishes these moments and plays them to their full effect. Playing the other two "mothers" in Astrid's life the always good Penn takes the thankless part of Starr and turns it into something memorable while Zellweger's expert turn as Claire has a broken-doll quality that perfectly captures the character's fragility. The real dilemma for the film's producers was finding the right Astrid--an actress who could hold her own at the heart of the story--and whose talent would hold up opposite Pfieffer. Lohman was chosen from a cast of thousands and does a fine job playing Astrid; the camera clearly loves her. Still she needs a little more experience under her belt before she can truly shine. Fugit who was once the newcomer himself in Almost Famous (and did a much better job the first time out) manages to create a believable rapport with Lohman as her boyfriend Paul.
OK this is a gripe to all Hollywood executives: stop using sentimental material to make major motion pictures even if it is from a bestselling book. While Fitch's novel tells a moving story it does not necessarily translate into an inspiring film. Director Peter Kosminsky does his best with Oleander to create a haunting atmosphere and there are times when the material is elevated especially in the scenes between Zellweger and Lohman and those that explore the tragedy that befalls them. Yet ultimately the film plays like an after-school special. This isn't to say an intimate story can't make an interesting movie (The Good Girl and Igby Goes Down are just two examples of what's out there right now) but Oleander fails to engage its audience in any kind of meaningful way.