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MOVIE REVIEW

The heart is a lonely hunter when memory fades in 'Away'

Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent star in Sarah Polley's directorial debut, 'Away From Her.' Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent star in Sarah Polley's directorial debut, "Away From Her." (Michael Gibson/Lionsgate Films)

"Away from Her" is based on a short story by Alice Munro called "The Bear Came Over the Mountain, a title with a heavy poetic tread. The movie's title is more direct, though, and so is the movie: a drama about Alzheimer's disease that pins down the small moments of a couple's life as if for keeping.

In the end, of course, nothing's for keeping, not even matters of the heart. "Away From Her" wonders if love itself is a by-product of memory -- if decades of days spent together mean nothing once the glue holding them together is gone.

If that sounds tragic, it is. The movie's far from depressing, though, because Julie Christie is playing Fiona , the Alzheimer's sufferer, and she goes down like a luminous ship at sea. Because Fiona loves Grant (Gordon Pinsent ), her husband of 40-some years, she tries to spare him, joking "Don't worry, darling, I'm just losing my mind" when he finds her putting a frying pan in the freezer. Soon enough, the shadows creep in. "I think I may be beginning to disappear," she murmurs, and the actress lets us see both wonderment and terror.

Half of "Away From Her" leads with awful poise up to the moment where Fiona has to go into a full-time care facility, a comfortable place with smiling, inflexible administrators. Grant is told he can't visit his wife for the first 30 days. When he returns, he finds a different woman, one with no memory of him or, worse, of them. "You are persistent, aren't you?" she gently chides this stranger bearing flowers.

Eventually the film becomes a tale of two couples. On one side of the abyss are Fiona and Aubrey (Michael Murphy ), a fellow patient who becomes her in-house husband -- they're like two fading husks placed next to each other. On the other side are Grant and Marian (Olympia Dukakis ), Aubrey's wife. He alternates between rage and despair; she shoots out merciless jabs of bile. They need each other, though. How else can they commemorate who their spouses were?

"Away From Her" is the first movie written and directed by Sarah Polley , the young Canadian actress best known from "The Sweet Hereafter " (1997 ) and the 2004 "Dawn of the Dead " remake. On screen Polley has always seemed a calmer, softer Uma Thurman , and her directorial debut is similarly unhurried. She's not a stylist. She mostly just parks the camera and watches. This is how you see things, of course.

As with most actors turned director, she's more interested in what her cast can do. Pinsent, well-known and loved in Canada, has the hard job of convincing us of Grant's emotional voyage; as the wife empties out, he fills up with feeling and pain. Christie turns up in movies so rarely these days that any chance to see her is worthwhile, but that brisk lack of vanity -- the self-possession that made her the epitome of the mid-'60s movie star -- suits her character. Fiona has always lived in the moment, and now she has to. It's a minor adjustment, in a way.

Polley's delicate grip slips toward the end of "Away From Her," allowing more ordinary sentimentality to flow in. It's a minor loss, because the movie has struck its theme earlier. With a tranquil fearlessness, it goes beyond the death of memory, to see what might be found in the unexplored country beyond. The answer is both frightening and comforting: More love. Unspecified love. Universal love.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/ movies/blog.

'Related'

Away From Her

Written and directed by: Sarah Polley

Based on a short story by Alice Munro

Starring: Julie Christie , Gordon Pinsent , Michael Murphy , Olympia Dukakis

At: Harvard Square

Running time: 109 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (language)

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