Forgotten Favourites: Away From Her, Julie Christie’s wonderful care home drama

Do we take Julie Christie for granted? She’s an icon. An international treasure. But when was the last time we actually wallowed in the wonderfulness of a woman who, on her next birthday, will be 81?

Here’s a film that forces us to appreciate every atom of her talent, the story of a Canadian housewife whose professor husband once made a habit of sleeping with his female students. Fiona (Christie) and Grant (Goron Pinsent) now have an idyllic life, in snowy Ontario. On the surface, everything looks clean and bright. Underneath, it’s a different story.

When Fiona displays symptoms of early on-set Alzheimer’s, she decides she needs to move into a care home. Once there, to the dismay of Grant, she becomes smitten with fellow patient, Aubrey (Michael Murphy). One of the beauties of this movie is its fresh angle on a familiar disease. Instead of being presented as a calamity, Alzheimer's, here, is simply a crisis capable of amplifying, or shrinking, horrors already endured.

As seen through Grant’s eyes, the care home resembles a sci-fi nightmare. The glossy, dead-eyed, manager is your archetypal body snatcher. The inmates (including Fiona) are stuck in verbal loops. At one point, the camera pans around a dimly-lit conservatory/family room, capturing, exactly, the strained conviviality such settings can inspire.

But Grant’s gaze is a subjective one. Later, we see Fiona in the dismal room and realise that, for her, it’s ablaze with vitality (because it contains Aubrey). Naturally, she doesn’t want to be away from him.

The script is based on a short story by Alice Munro. Many film-makers (including the great Pedro Almodovar) have tried to bottle Munro’s unshowy brilliance. None have been as successful as director-writer, Sarah Polley.

It’s like she and author are a fused entity. Polley juggles time, smoothly, and creates dialogue, as well as wordless moments, entirely worthy of Munro. (Fiona teases Grant, by mentioning one of his ex-mistresses; she then pokes him and the affection and malice in that single gesture is priceless).

Polley’s choice of actors is similarly inspired. In Munro’s story, Aubrey is described as having “something of the beauty of a powerful, discouraged, elderly horse.” If there’s a man alive more horse-like than Murphy, I’d like to meet him.

As for Christie... Munro’s narrator says of Fiona that she’s “direct and vague”, “sweet and ironic”. How apt. Those words, which crop up in the film, sum up Fiona. And, by the by, the incredible actress who plays her.