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AWAY FROM HER

Actress Sarah Polley shows considerable skill as a writer and director with her first feature, a sensitive study of a couple torn apart by Alzheimer’s based on a short story by Alice Munro. But while “Away from Her” is adroitly made, and very well acted by the luminous Julie Christie and the lesser-known but in many ways even more impressive Gordon Pinsent, it doesn’t entirely escape the feel of a very good television tearjerker.

When we’re introduced to Fiona and Grant Anderson (Christie and Pinsent), they’re an active older couple cross-country skiing the wintry neighborhood of their Canadian home. But it soon becomes clear that her memory is failing, and she concludes it’s time for her to go into a nursing home, despite Grant’s reluctance over the month-long separation the facility requires from relatives of new residents.

When the thirty days are finally up, Grant arrives at the home expecting a warm welcome, but instead finds Fiona strangely distant and devoted to another resident, the mute, wheelchair-bound Aubrey (Michael Murphy), with whom she’s struck up a relationship of co-dependence. It seems, in fact, that while pleasant and controlled, she might not recognize Grant at all. He feels quietly rejected, even a mite jealous over his wife’s solicitous attitude toward Aubrey. And he suspects that she might be feigning her forgetfulness as a way of taking revenge on him for his long-ago infidelity (he’s a former academic, and apparently once strayed with a student).

The remainder of “Away from Her” is really the story of Grant’s continuing devotion to Fiona even in the face of her emotional detachment from him. There’s an especially affecting moment when a punkish young woman, reluctantly visiting a relative one day, strays over to a couch where Grant is seated, watching his wife and Aubrey together at a nearby table, and, taking him for a patient, mentions how sad it must be not to have any visitors himself. (The conversation that follows is brief, but as affecting as anything else in the picture.) Grant goes so far as to approach Aubrey’s wife Marian (Olympia Dukakis) after she’s taken her husband home for financial reasons, to ask her to return Aubrey to the facility to raise the dejected Fiona’s spirits.

This material could easily have descended into mawkishness, but Polley’s touch is sufficiently sure to circumvent the pitfalls and avoid sentimentality while revealing the characters’ emotional lives. She’s chosen her cast wisely. Christie, still lovely after years of relative absence from the screen, conveys the poignancy of Fiona’s deterioration while maintaining her dignity, and both the steely Dukakis and the pathetic Murphy manage their scenes with skill. So does Kristen Thomson, as a kindly but clear-eyed nurse. But the actor who carries the film is really Pinsent, who captures both Grant’s wounded pride and his gentle nobility. On the technical level “Away from Her” is functional rather than spectacular, but Luc Pontpellier’s cinematography is clean and David Wharnsby’s editing reasonably crisp.

“Away from Her” may be seen as a sort of gender-reversal of the “On Golden Pond” formula, but the comparison wouldn’t be apt. Straightforward but not detached, touching but not maudlin, it’s an honestly moving, if modest, portrait of a marriage affected by a terrible wasting disease.

AFTER THE WEDDING (EFTER BRYLLUPPET)

Danish director Susanne Bier has developed an uncanny ability to present what are essentially soap operas in a fashion that makes them seem less tearjerkers than serious dramas. It’s a remarkable skill that she employs once again in this tale that in less accomplished hands might have been dismissed as mawkish and contrived, but in hers comes across as surprisingly honest and affecting.

“After the Wedding” begins in India, where dour, long-expatriate Dane Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen) runs an orphanage and bonded with a particularly lovable kid, Pramod (Neeral Mulchandani). But because the operation is on shaky financial ground, he’s reluctantly compelled to travel back to his homeland to meet with Jorgen (Rolf Lassgard), a wealthy businessman who’s unexpectedly announced that he’s considering making a substantial donation, but only if Jacob comes to confer with him personally. Jacob makes the trip, promising Pramod to be back within the week for the kid’s birthday. But the friendly but volatile mogul, postponing his decision, invites Jacob to his daughter’s wedding the next day. There Jacob is shocked to learn not only that the man’s wife Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is an ex-girlfriend of his—indeed, apparently the only woman he ever loved—but that Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen), the daughter, is only Jorgen’s stepchild and that he may be her biological father.

The revelations naturally lead to intense confrontations among Jacob, Helene and Anna as they try to work through the resultant emotional minefield. The increasingly loose-cannon Jorgen insists that he wasn’t aware of Jacob’s connection to his wife and stepdaughter when he virtually summoned him to Denmark, but no viewer with any sense will be taken in by that, any more than the other characters are. Nor will the true reason behind Jorgen’s actions—which will not be revealed here—come as much of a surprise to anyone familiar with women’s pictures of the 1940s, of which this is, at bottom, a sort of male mirror-image.

But the script, which almost invites bathetic treatment, comes across here as dramatic rather than melodramatic, incisive rather than mawkish. That’s the result of fine acting across the board—especially by the sharp-featured, quietly simmering Mikkelsen, who even carries off his scenes with Mulchandani without descending into drippy sentiment, and the more heart-on-sleeve Lassgard, who has some moments in which he lets loose so ferociously that he seems almost possessed. Knudsen and Christensen don’t have quite the same opportunities to shine, but they provide fine support. This is primarily a four-person chamber piece, but the rest of the cast fill their assignments more than adequately as well.

“After the Wedding” is unlike a Douglas Sirk-style soap opera from the technical perspective, too, eschewing the sort of slick, lush look someone like Ross Hunter used to cultivate in favor of a grittier feel, bolstered by Morten Soborg often excited, close-in cinematography and the sharp editing of Pernille Bech and Morten Hojbjerg. Johan Soderqvist’s atmospheric score also accentuates the mood.

The result is a domestic drama of rare perceptiveness and power. It’s a strong addition to Bier’s two earlier films, “Open Hearts” and “Brothers,” and confirms once more that she possesses the rare ability to take potentially melodramatic material and shape it to transcend its roots.