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Will she know me today? Christie in Away From Her.

They’ve Come Undone

By Shawn Stone

Away From Her

Directed by Sarah Polley

One of the things that has made Julie Christie such a compelling actress and movie star for, oh, 40-plus years, is the elusiveness with which she imbues her characters. Not just another pretty face—although, yes, she’s always been a “pretty face”—Christie always makes the audience (not to mention the other characters in each film) work to figure her out. She got an Oscar in 1965 for bringing this quality to the self-absorbed “it girl” in Darling, and the best directors—Robert Altman with McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Hal Ashby with Shampoo, and, most hauntingly, Richard Lester with Petulia—cast her in roles that let her use this elusiveness to greatest effect.

Add actress-turned-director Sarah Polley to this list of savvy filmmakers. This first feature from Canadian indie-flick queen Polley is a serious, deeply felt and bracingly acerbic look at aging and loss—loss of love and loss of self. And while Polley does a fine job until almost the end, it’s Christie who carries the film over its ultimate shortcomings.

Christie is Fiona, who lives with her retired-professor husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent) in a large-but-cozy cottage on the shores of a frozen lake. (We never see the lake in summer, which is a pointed giveaway.) As infrequent moments of forgetfulness turn into shocking, and frightening, short-term memory loss, Fiona realizes she probably has Alzheimer’s. Grant, however, refuses to accept that his devoted 60-something wife is slipping away from him.

This changes their relationship in ways that knock Grant off kilter, and force him to face who he really is. (Hint: When another character calls him a jerk, the audience is inclined to agree.)

When Fiona forces Grant to admit her into a very upscale nursing home, things really go south for their relationship. Fiona develops a passionate attachment to a mute fellow resident, Aubrey (a quietly powerful Michael Murphy), and Grant turns to Aubrey’s wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis), for help—but it’s not the kind of help you might expect. And that’s where Away From Her gets really interesting.

The final twists and turns of both emotion and plot are a wrenching cross between Atom Egoyan and O. Henry, and Polley isn’t quite up to the task. The final scene hits hard—Christie, especially, plays it beautifully—but the action that builds up to it doesn’t hit hard enough.

It’s worth noting that cosponsors the National Film Board of Canada and the Canadian Broadcasting Company got their money’s worth: Polley lets her Maple Leaf flag fly. There are references to Canadian pro football and the seemingly eternal playoff futility of hockey’s Toronto Maple Leafs, a visit to a Canadian nature preserve, endless snowscapes and—of course—both Neil Young and k.d. lang (singing a Neil Young song) on the soundtrack. After a certain point, you can’t help but think, “OK, we get it. This isn’t Minnesota.”

Away From Her is affecting, but not devastating. Blame Canada?

Third Time’s the Charm, Sort Of

Shrek the Third

Directed by Chris Miller and Raman Hui

Poor Shrek. Just when he’d figured out marriage and gotten comfortable with his in-laws, he’s hit with a double whammy. Wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz) is pregnant, and father-in-law King Harold (John Cleese), on his deathbed (or water lily, more accurately), passes on the crown to him. With both these unwanted events, our green ogre finds himself awash in terror. And so, he embarks, with trusty sidekicks Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas), to find a different heir, namely one Arthur Pendragon (Justin Timberlake), in order that he might return to the peace and quietude of the swamp. Trouble is, young Artie is a bit of a loser, and none too pleased about being forcefully removed from a rather unhappy, but normal, existence at a Hogwarts-type school. Can Shrek change his young protégé’s mind, and more important, can they get back to Far Far Away in time to save it from the evil machinations of an embittered Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) and his not-so-merry band of fairy-tale witches and cutthroats?

Gone from this installment are the nasty undertones of the second edition, and while Shrek The Third comes nowhere near to delivering the surprise and joy of the original, it’s a decidedly steadier picture. Throughout, there’s a sense that this is the last installment—which may be a good thing—and while the many screenwriters involved don’t do nearly enough with the delicious concept of fairy-tale baddies run amok, and fairy-tale damsels in distress having to get tough to survive, there is still a lot to admire. If much of that comes from the dazzling technical effects, notably a sopping wet Puss, well, so be it. What made Shrek so delightful was its refusal to kowtow to the usual “warm fuzzy” that Disney specializes in; by this juncture, however, the filmmakers resort to having Shrek channel his inner Ward Cleaver when advising the importance of remaining true to oneself.

The best bits of Shrek the Third are those that dramatize the lead character’s baby fears, notably a brilliant nightmare scene (which riffs off Rosemary’s Baby and It’s Alive) that culminates in thousands of tiny ogres oozing out of the woodwork. Great fun is made at Charming’s expense, of course, including the fact that, at movie’s beginning, he’s been relegated to dinner theatre where the stand-in for Shrek still gets the biggest applause. I wish more had been made of his sinister plan to take over Far Far Away, and of Fiona’s rounding up the ladies for a little payback. Too few are the scenes in which Cinderella (Amy Sedaris), Rapunzel (Maya Rudolph), Snow White (Amy Poehler), and Sleeping Beauty (Cheri Oteri) snip at each other like extras in a Beverly Hills 90210 episode, or when the Ugly Stepsisters Doris (Larry King) and Mabel (Regis Philbin) trade insults. The jokes come at you, the parent, hard and fast; hopefully, the tykes will get enough of it to enjoy the show—or (from the franchise’s point of view) at least demand the latest plush toy or Happy Meal accessory “inspired” by the movie. As sequels go, it’s not all that shabby, but it’s far far away from William Steig.

—Laura Leon


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