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Stanley Kauffmann on Films: People in Shadows


New Line

WHAT A TREAT it is to watch Sarah Polley’s career flourish. First, her acting. A few months ago she was in The Secret Life of Words,where she created a young woman stilled by gross experience. Now, after directing several shorts, Polley has directed her first feature, Away From Her (in which she does not appear). More: the screenplay is her own adaptation of a story by Alice Munro.

Away From Her is extraordinary—delicate, seriously disturbing, and lovely.

Polley, born in 1979, is a Canadian who studied acting in London (with Albert Finney, no less), then came home and began working, particularly for Atom Egoyan in two films, one of them the memorable The Sweet Hereafter. (Egoyan is an executive producer on this new film.) She soon began making shorts. Then she discoveredthe Munro story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” was enraptured, and was at last enabled to make a film of it. Appropriately, the story has just been reprinted on its own, using the film’s title.In Polley’s preface, she writes that after first reading the story,” I returned to it many times in the following months, trying to make sense of the hold it had over me.” By whatever means, family experience among them, she has found the answer and has realized itexquisitely on film.

Munro’s story is about one of the dangers of living. We are all open to attack by physical mysteries that we do nothing to invite andcan do nothing to avoid. Alzheimer’s is prime: nothing need be done to incur it, little can be done to repel it. It is like a large soft cloud that floats up unbidden and gradually envelops. For a time, perhaps a long time, it doesn’t even frighten the individual. The magnificent simplicity of Munro’s story is that she tells it without a sob, simply as the arrival of something in a woman who is unaware of it for a while and therefore unafraid. Her loving husband can see quite clearly what is happening and must eventually—in a sense helplessly—take necessary steps. Munro relates all this in prose that is so unadorned as to be beautiful, so unmaneuvering that it grips, so direct that it is wise. (Quite rightly, the screenplay relies a good deal on Munro’s dialogue.)

Grant, a retired professor, and Fiona, his wife, have lived happily in a Canadian university town for many years. Grant has had some encounters with female students, but they have not rippled the peace of his marriage. Suddenly Fiona, an unfussily competent woman, begins to leave strange little reminder notes to herself around the house, and some small oddities in her behavior begin. “I don’t think it’s anything to worry about,” she says, “I expect I’m just losing my mind.” An offhand, household witticism.

Inevitably, matters lead in the course of months to the nursinghome, very clubby on the first floor. The second floor is forpatients who are—in that weird term—advanced. The superintendent, Madeleine, a woman whose charm seems to be freshly ironed every morning, informs Grant that he will not be allowed to visit for the first thirty days. His objections do not prevail, and at the end of the month he is surprised, even dismayed, to find that Fiona hassettled in chummily and is glad, though not relieved, to see him.

In the nursing home Fiona has become particular chums with Aubrey, a man whom she thinks she knew before. Aubrey weeps and trembles when she leaves him to be with Grant on his visits. Madeleine tells Grant that attachments like Aubrey and Fiona’s are common but have no serious import. Grant goes to visit Aubrey’s wife, Marian, with a suggestion that would at least interrupt the hospital friendship. Marian is not interested. Still, Polley’s only alteration in Munro is to fulfill something that is merely foretold in the story.

The air of the film, almost the literal atmosphere through which everything moves, is made for us by the two principal actors. Julie Christie, the Golden Girl of British film in the 1960s, has of late done some intelligent acting. She was the Queen in Branagh’s Hamlet, and she was notable in a minor role in The Secret Life of Words. Polley has said that thinking about Christie and at last getting her agreement to play Fiona were crucial to the film. Christie’s Fiona is a small paradox. It is not, in itself, exceptional acting. Emma Thompson, for instance, if she could have managed to age a bit for the role, would exceed Christie in art.But Christie’s sheer understanding of the woman brings her intohaunting life.

Gordon Pinsent, the mature Canadian actor who plays Grant, was, I’m truly sorry to say, unknown to me despite his extensive career inthe theater and on screens large and small, mostly in his own country. He is one of those immediately embraceable actors who can think, who can make inner action as clear as anything he says or does. Through all the difficulties of color and intent in his role, Pinsent is like an exceptionally strong man handling weights, with both consideration and ease.

But these two actors and everyone concerned with Away From Her owe the chance to spend their abilities on this extraordinary film, as no doubt they would agree, to the passion of Sarah Polley for the project and to the talent with which she has realized it. Her directing flows and interweaves; and she has an enlarging quality of reticence, which makes key moments strong by not exploiting them. But her master touch is in evolving the chill, even on the sunniest days, that is enveloping Grant as he watches the cloud approach and Fiona equanimously welcoming it. Oh, how I hope there will soon be another film directed or acted by Polley.

FRACTURE is a thriller that pits two quite different men against each other, a mature, sophisticated middle-aged murderer and a gum-chewing, avidly informal young assistant D.A. But there’s another confrontation, more subtle, a contrast between two kinds of acting. The older man is played by Anthony Hopkins, a technically immaculate veteran of theater and film; the younger man is played by Ryan Gosling, whose idea of acting is to make sure that we can’t accuse him of it. Thus in this contrast there is some extraamusement and interest in the scenes between the two.

The film was directed by the slick Gregory Hoblit and was written by Daniel Pyne and Glenn Gers. The Pyne-Gers approach to screenwriting is to amass clever twists, each one designed to jar us out of whatever expectation the last twist may have suggested. For instance (these matters come early in the film) Hopkins shoots his wife because she has been seeing a younger man, and he devises the killing so that, though he is clearly the shooter, he cannot be convicted. Next, the detective assigned to solve the case is hisdead wife’s former lover. And that’s just the beginning.

The chief pleasure in the picture (set in Los Angeles) is in watching Hopkins spin off another of his nutty self-possessed intellectual criminals—this time it’s Hannibal Lecter lite. And there are some shiny modern settings by Paul Eads. And a professional curiosity: Fiona Shaw, a pre-eminent English actress on both sides of the Atlantic (she was Medea in London and New York), was brought over to play the trifling role of a judge. We can all hope that Shaw enjoyed her visit to L.A.

ON THAT eleventh of September, while I watched from my apartment the black smoke billowing out of the World Trade Center, I soon began to sense, under the shock, a wormy wriggle of obscenity. It felt sickening that this catastrophe was reminding me of horror movies. Within hours, days, weeks, I learned that the rest of the world in great degree shared that feeling. By what right under the wide heavens had such a monstrosity to summon up memories of trash?

The Virginia Tech agony is, in relation to film, at least as tackily suggestive and much more tightly knit. Seung-Hui Cho was not only committing acts that, like those of bin Laden’s assassins, resembled a film; he was actually in a film. The written materials that he would leave were close to mere formalities. Apparently he had to be in a movie, like dozens he had seen, spouting his hate and his canted reasons; but even more importantly, we can think, he needed to be the star that his largely self-constricted life had not permitted him to be. After he killed his first two victims and was launched on his ecstasy, he went back to his room and got the video that he then sent to NBC to make sure he would not die—before he went on to slaughter thirty more people and himself. He was certifying his film, supplying the reality that would immortalize him. Imagine it. Every moment while he was doing those killings, the existence of that film was in his head.

Others have pointed out the similarities between Cho’s tape and some moments in horror films. But those twenty-seven students and five teachers were slaughtered, one might say, so that Cho, having made his film, could fulfill it. Cho’s shootings seemed to be—for him—the validating of his film.

In any case, two of the most harrowing massacres in American history are linked to film, the first peripherally, the second organically.The blessings of film are innumerable, but, as with most blessings, curses linger nearby.

This article appeared in the May 21, 2007 issue of the magazine.