I almost met the actress Sarah Polley last year. I was standing in a public ticket holders line at the Toronto Film Festival when she walked right past me and joined the same line a few people back. Now you may not have heard of Polley–she’s starred in artier films like The Sweet Hereafter and The Claim–but she’s a big celebrity in her native Toronto. She certainly could’ve pulled rank and moved to the front of the line or avoided it altogether. I was all set to go back and tell her how impressed I was by her willingness to join the rest of us when I realized that would defeat the whole point. If she was comfortable standing in a public line, it was because she was counting on fellow film lovers not to call attention to her.

Now I relate this story not because it’s terribly exciting but because it reveals something important about Polley. She’s a quiet, thoughtful person who genuinely enjoys movies and doesn’t care a hoot about celebrity. Not surprisingly, her directorial debut Away from Her is a quiet, thoughtful film that shows a devotion to the craft of acting and an aversion to hype.

It stars the still radiant Julie Christie as Fiona. Fiona has been married to Grant (Gordon Pinsent) for 44 years. And while there are allusions to earlier infidelity on his part, their marriage has settled into a close companionship of cooking and eating, cross-country skiing and reading by the fire. Our first glimpse that something might not be right with Fiona comes when she puts a clean frying pan into the refrigerator. Grant looks at her with a combination of love and concerned puzzlement.

It soon becomes clear that Fiona is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. But she confronts it with a direct sense of irony that’s not exactly combative but focuses instead on how she can still live. The dementia becomes more pronounced, however, as we see when she sets out for a short skiing trip and can’t find her way back home. The scene when Grant finally finds her standing on a frigid bridge is beautifully touching, as he tries to minimize what’s clearly a turning point for her. Fiona is a strong woman, though, and realizes she needs to make a decision. So with Grant’s reluctant acceptance, she checks herself into a nursing home that specializes in Alzheimer’s care. This leads to a poignant scene as Grant can’t bring himself to leave while Fiona tries to push him away though still letting him know that she loves him.

07-away-from-her-resized.jpgIf the first half of Away from Her is a gorgeous portrait of the last months of marriage, the second half is a tough account of how difficult it must be to watch someone’s memory fade away. My friend Garth remarked that the movie must be a real downer, but that’s not so. Yes, there’s a melancholy about the film, but it’s lightened with moments of laughter and, more importantly, a deep attention to the rhythms of life. The movie is based on an Alice Munro short story. And anyone familiar with her work will recognize her direct, unvarnished style as well as the commitment to gaze into the souls of her characters.

Polley brings the same qualities to the film. Much of the movie consists of close ups of Fiona, Grant and a few secondary characters (the always welcome Olympia Dukakis stars as the wife of a man Fiona befriends in the home). Those close ups allow the actors to communicate a great deal through subtle inflections. The Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent is a revelation, as he carries the more difficult part of Grant with uncommon grace. His early scenes with Christie are brilliant, as he grounds their relationship just by the way he looks at her. I was also particularly impressed with an otherwise pedestrian scene when he tours the nursing home, for even the manner of his gait subtly communicates how uncomfortable he’s growing.

Christie is just as beautiful as she was in ‘60s classics like Far from the Madding Crowd and Dr. Zhivago, and here she brings an intense devotion to her work. The subtle deterioration of Fiona’s mind is portrayed not with the flamboyant tics associated with Oscar winners but careful attention to gesture and inflection. It’s amazing how Christie can communicate, just through her eyes, Fiona’s increasing lack of confidence. And Polley bathes Christie’s in a pale light that highlights that vulnerability.

Not all of Polley’s directorial decisions work as well. A few slow-motion shots seem out of place in this otherwise naturalistic story, and she relies too much on an admittedly beautiful score. But her work with her lead actors is extraordinary and certainly belies her youth (Polley was only 27 when she made the movie). And I was just as impressed by how she allows this quiet story to develop slowly. The thoughtful accumulation of details leads to a climax that is rich and satisfying. The next time I see Polley at a film festival, I might have to pass her a note letting her know how much I’m looking forward to her next film.

Away from Her:  four stars, out of five