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The 28-year-old Canadian actor Sarah Polley is best known for her portrayals of intriguing, complex characters in indie films such as Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, Wim Wenders’s Don’t Come Knocking and Isabel Coixet’s The Secret Life of Words. She has now directed her first feature film, Away From Her, which stars Julie Christie in a rare screen appearance as an elderly Canadian woman who suffers from Alzheimers. It’s not Polley’s first time behind the camera: she has directed four short films since 1999 and was considering making a full-length feature when she read Alice Munro’s short story, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” on an aeroplane journey back from a film shoot. She was fascinated with the 77-year-old Canadian writer’s portrayal of an ageing husband and wife, Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Christie), who together make the painful decision that Fiona should move out of their home and into residential care. Polley’s direction of her experienced, older cast is fearless. Her writing, which is both faithful and filmic, shows great sensitivity and intelligence, and her direction of an ensemble cast of men and women living with Alzheimers is both careful and moving. It’s something of a coup that Polley was able to persuade Julie Christie, who now only acts occasionally, to take the film’s lead (Polley and Christie already knew each other from starring together in Hal Hartley’s No Such Thing in 2001). It’s fitting, too, that Polley, an outspoken political activist herself, should now be collaborating with Christie, an actor who is famed for her work in animal rights and nuclear disarmament.

Another Man: It’s rare to see older characters on screen, especially as the main focus of a drama. Sarah Polley: I guess I feel that in films we keep missing the most interesting parts of people’s careers. As an actor myself, the older I get, the more life I’ve lived, and so inevitably, I’ve become a richer actor for it. Specifically with women, just as someone has the most to offer us as an audience, they disappear. It seems cruel that people who love movies cannot see these people at their best. I get frustrated seeing people in their teenage years or early 20s – when they are at their most boring. For me, there’s a gesture of hope in this film. I hope that as I get better, there will actually be roles for me to play. AM: Julie Christie’s character, Fiona, may have Alzheimers, but she is still a sexual being. She even strikes up an affair in her care home. That’s unusual too. SP: It’s always an odd choice that we make in films; as soon as someone reaches 50 they somehow shun all sexuality. It’s not my experience of older people that sexual desire always shuts down. I suppose it does sometimes, but it also does in younger people – and we never portray that. I feel like maybe that was another gesture of hope for me, the idea that life goes on and things can get richer in a different way. AM: Your film is based on a short story by Alice Munro. When did you realise it would make a good film? SP: I first read it about six years ago. I’d just finished working with Julie Christie on Hal Hartley’s No Such Thing. I read it on the plane on my way home and it reached so far into me and I had such a pivotal experience with it that it would take hours to describe. But it really altered something in my thinking about the nature of love and what was important to me, and what unconditional love meant in the real world. I couldn’t get Julie’s face out of my mind. I’d become quite close to her and admired her so much. It just seemed that it would be really interesting to watch her play this character. I think imagining her in that role was probably the motivating factor in optioning the story. I felt like it was a performance that I hadn’t seen her do, and also one that she wouldn’t think she was capable of. Her relationship with her own talent is really complicated, and I just knew that she’d be spectacular in it and I wanted to watch her go through that. AM: Did you suggest the idea to Julie straightaway? SP: No. I wrote the script first. I mentioned it to her a few times, but I didn’t make too much of it. I waited until the script was in reasonable shape before sending it to her. It was quite a long process persuading her to do it. It took about eight months to get her to agree.

AM: Your film is about Alzheimers, which is such a sensitive subject. How did you make sure you got the details right? SP: I did a lot of research, a crazy amount really. The film is a strange marriage of Alice Munro’s story and the research I did into the disease. Myself and a lot of the actors had come into contact with sufferers too and so we all brought a lot to it. AM: It’s a bold move for a young writer/director to write and direct characters in their 60s and 70s. SP: People kept saying that to me, but it didn’t register until I actually had Julie and Gordon in a room, and all of a sudden, there was this moment of sheer panic – I actually had to direct this film! I guess it could have been a disaster, but they were very parental with me and very nurturing. I felt like they were all helping me to figure out how to direct. It was an idyllic environment in a way. AM: Mental illness is one of the hardest things to portray well in drama. SP: Absolutely, and there’s this intense pressure on you to be accurate. And what’s difficult is that there’s no way of being faithful to everyone’s different experiences. It’s as varied and diverse as the people who are suffering from it. This film isn’t entirely true to my own experience of Alzheimers with my grandmother – but then it’s not inaccurate either. To me, that was a lot more intimidating than taking on older characters. Taking on a disease that’s damaged so many families and wanting to be responsible with that was harder. AM: It’s your first feature as a director, although you’ve made shorts before. Has making films affected your choices as an actor? SP: Especially in the last seven years that I’ve been making shorts, I’ve quite consciously wanted to work with directors who I feel can provide me with a little bit of a film school. I’m lucky to have been able to work with some of my favourite filmmakers, and bear witness to their process. The main thing that I’ve learned is that the process is completely a reflection of who you are. It’s so individual and there are so few rules. AM: You must have worked with filmmakers and thought: I definitely wouldn’t want to do it like that. SP: Absolutely. I don’t think that’s going to mean that I can avoid being deeply flawed, but it’s interesting to know that everyone lets something slide at some point. AM: There’s a point in your film in which Fiona, Julie Christie’s character, watches news footage of the Iraq war and becomes upset, saying, ‘How could they forget Vietnam?’ It feels very much like a nod to Julie Christie’s own past. SP: The line was definitely written for Julie Christie (laughs). Also, there’s always this confusion with people with Alzheimers: it doesn’t make any sense that they can remember some things and not others. My grandmother, for example, could remember all her multiplication tables but not that her daughter had been dead for 17 years. AM: What sort of films inspire you as an actor and director? SP: Mostly my favourites are old films, like Bergman movies, or Kieslowski movies... AM: It’s funny you say Bergman because looking at the notes I took when watching your film, I’ve written the word ‘Bergman’ and underlined it several times... SP: (Laughs) Really... It’s so interesting how these things get under your skin. I’m hyper-aware that so many young filmmakers’ main experience of the world comes from movies. There’s so much that’s derivative and self-reflective. Cinema is too fucking young for us to be ripping things off! We’re just putting down the floorboards and people are already imitating. I’m so obsessively careful about not emulating anything, that it’s amazing to me how many people get a sense of me having an admiration or obsession with Bergman, which I do. It’s interesting how that’s such an unconscious process. AM: I suppose Bergman is the greatest example of the kind of intimate, uncompromising film about relationships. SP: Privately, I’m happy with that comparison. (Laughs)

Away From Her opens on April 27. Dave Calhoun is Film Editor of Time Out.

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