Away From Her (2007)

Away From Her, a film about the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s on a several decades-long marriage was more than ably adapted and directed by a young woman not yet thirty—Sarah Polley. Best known for her acting, Polley offers one of the better debuts for a North American writer/director in some time. The film, which tracks the struggles that Fiona and Grant endure as she succumbs to the disease, has a quiet and unassuming way about it. Rather than big emotional breakdowns, we get silence and contemplation, a choice that serves to open the film and allow the audience to connect with it in more personal ways. One scene in particular was especially striking in this regard.

In an early scene, Fiona moves across the kitchen to place a skillet in the freezer, obviously unaware that she is making a mistake. Grant stands at the sink, watching his wife intently, and nearly expressionless. Fiona then completes her task, makes a brief comment to her husband, and leaves the kitchen. Polley shoots the entire sequence from the far end of the kitchen in a single shot, with both actors in medium close-up. The director’s choice here helps to underline the import of the scene in at least two ways.

First, because the whole of the kitchen is covered in the frame, the changing spatial relationship between the actors is highlighted. Thus, as Fiona moves toward the freezer, she moves away from Grant, and the distance between them becomes more than apparent. However, when she returns to Grant and continues speaking to him as if nothing had happened, a kind of closeness returns—except now, because of this new factor in their relationship, it is always mitigated by that skillet in the freezer. And of course, the ice box still sits in the foreground of the shot, not allowing us to forget about its presence.

Second, because Polley uses a single shot for this scene, it allows the silence of Grant to bring extra weight to the exchange. His silence helps to highlight the previous spatial changes, forcing the viewer to pay attention to something other than words. In addition, it also helps us to focus on the actors, especially the character of Grant. And the mix of fear, confusion, and mystery written on his face help to create a compelling moment that likely would have been lost had someone attempted to script lines for him. Though this is our first experience of Fiona’s forgetfulness, we already understand implicitly the struggle that is beginning for the couple. In this case, the wise choice of silence allows the form of the film to communicate when there is no need for words. That Polley utilizes such techniques has me looking forward with anticipation to her next directorial effort.

4 thoughts on “Away From Her (2007)

  1. Dear John: I protest! Polley is Canadian, and the film is a Canadian production. Based on a Canadian writer’s short story, too.
    Aside from that – it’s always worth pointing out anyone who knows the value of respecting and using extended space and time in cinema. I was watching 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days last week, and was struck by its long last shot, in which the conversation comes to an end because one character wants to forget what’s happened, and the other is realizing the pointlessness of saying what’s on her mind: those two facts emphasized by the long silence that follows, and the restaurant table stretched out between them, and, finally, the second character looking away.
    Best regards,

  2. Thanks, Edward for the comment and the correction! I actually knew that it was a Canadian film, and that Polley was herself a Canadian, but it inexplicably came out wrong! I’ve corrected the offending statement.

    I’m looking forward to seeing 432, as it’s nearing the top of my Netflix queue. I’ll keep your comments in mind then.

  3. Great review, John. I’ve noticed a gentler pace and use of silence to stoke emoton in other films of late. Bella comes to mind. Think this is a trend?

  4. Thanks for the comment, Sarah. Trend? If it is, it is only in smaller, more off the beaten path movies, and that not all the time. Wall-E (at least the first half) is a good example of that quiet trend making its way into the mainstream. However, that is a striking exception to the rule in my view.

    Pretty much everything I see that’s popular is so scattered and flashy and loud that I need to detox after seeing it. :) I know I appreciate those quieter, slower kind of films precisely because they offer something different from the rat race we all seem to be caught up in.

    Haven’t seen Bella yet. Thanks for the recommendation!

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