Few events test character like a crisis close to home. A pair of recent low-key films (both now being mailed to Academy members around Hollywood) address the issue of family members succumbing to progressive impairment. In the movies — as in real life — people handle life-changing circumstances differently. Canadian Sarah Polley’s directing debut tracks the disintegration of a 44-year marriage in Away From Her. It showcases a special, rare performance by Julie Christie widely touted for an Academy Award nomination. She won the award 42 years ago. Now, a similar movie enters — The Savages — with grown up siblings wondering: What to do about Dad? That’s the Smackdown: Which film offers the stronger treatment dealing with loved ones who no longer remember who they are even though family members in charge of their care can’t forget.
Given a limited release this past Thanksgiving, The Savages tells the story of Lenny Savage who’s getting unpredictable as his life winds out in Sun City, Arizona with Doris Metzger. She drops dead in the beauty parlor and everything changes for Lenny and his adult children in New York, Wendy and Jon Savage. Lenny (Philip Bosco) can’t take care of himself anymore — and because he doesn’t own the house he shared with Doris, he must leave. But go where? That decision and all the paperwork falls to Jon and Wendy (Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney). Dad has Parkinson’s Disease and his children are nearly paralyzed by resentment and guilt. Jon and Wendy must come to terms with their emotional distance from Lenny, and each other. Tamara Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills) wrote the screenplay she directed.
Away From Her came out last May and is already on video. In it, Grant Anderson (Gordon Pinsent) says of his wife, Fiona, that he can’t imagine being away from her. “She has the spark of life,” Grant says even as he sees the spark flicker. Fiona (Christie) shows disturbing evidence of her deepening Alzheimer’s Disease: She places a fry pan in the freezer and can’t pronounce the word, “wine.” They decide to place Fiona in an assisted-living facility offering expanded care as her impairment grows. It’s a difficult adjustment for both. It leads to troubling complications in-and-out of Meadowlake and remembrances (as Fiona reminds Grant) of a less-than-faithful marriage. Sarah Polley adapted her screenplay from a short story by Alice Munro, “The Bear Came Over The Mountain.”
Both films show us flawed people making the best of conditions beyond their control. Lenny Savage was a stranger to his kids, so it’s no surprise that Jon and Wendy have emotional loose ends and problems with commitment. They don’t know their father and not enough about each other. Hoffman and Linney present strong, fully dimensional portraits of troubled adults dealing with a helpless parent and their own gaping needs. The Savages manage this with a dose of humor.
Away From Her is nowhere as funny, but effectively operates on different levels. We feel Fiona’s terror at losing her grip and Grant’s at losing her. At several points he wonders whether Fiona is really impaired or punishing his philandering. Grant is unhinged by her attachment to another resident at Meadowlake and his response takes a sharp left turn. Gordon Pinsent handles this quite well.
Mainly, Julie Christie commands the screen. Every movement, every expression remind us what a real movie star is all about. She effectively inhabits the skin of a woman lamenting the loss of the life she knew and the better parts of a mature marriage. This is easily her strongest performance in a decade.
So, can we choose between two strong contenders handling similar themes? You bet.
The Savages offers an attractive package of story and performance surrounding difficult subject matter. Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman improve a fine movie with strong performances. Their sibling bickering is uncomfortably recognizable by all. Their reconciliation is touching.
Tipping the balance is Julie Christie’s performance. It rivets your attention and may be the best film performance by an actress the past year. You sense the sweep of love and regret crossing the breadth of a long marriage, and the impending loss. It’s easy to understand why Grant Anderson regards himself lucky in life to have Fiona. We’re lucky, too, having this study of character in crisis, our winner: “Away From Her.”