The actress Sarah Polley generally comes across as smarter than the films she’s in. Her performances keep something in reserve, radiating intelligence without generating heat. Even when playing the lead, which she does too infrequently, Polley keeps a low profile. In magazine interviews that invariably mention her resistance to the trappings of celebrity, she has described herself as having been “really cynical about acting,” and her sidestepping of emotional abandon often creates extra-narrative tension. Hers is a strangely communicative detachment, one that flatters the attentive viewer from a distance.
Born in 1979 to two Toronto actors—on whom more later—Polley began performing in her youth, appearing as the pint-sized comic heroine of Terry Gilliam’s swashbuckling The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and in the Canadian television series Ramona and Road to Avonlea. But she found herself exiled from the Disney Company’s good graces after wearing a peace-symbol necklace to an awards show during the Gulf War. At age 14, she dropped out of school to take up political activism—even losing a couple of teeth in a local protest—and then appeared in Atom Egoyan’s two greatest films, Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter. Polley’s performance in the latter, as the paralyzed survivor of a school bus accident and potential star witness in a class-action lawsuit, is unflinching and unforgettable: she turns from paragon of innocence to calculating liar to moral beacon without a twitch, grin or grimace. If she has often been cast as a victim, it’s because she registers many types of flatness without exposing the seams.
Though Polley has chosen her roles carefully ever since then, working with art-house royalty like Kathryn Bigelow, David Cronenberg, Hal Hartley and Wim Wenders, she has often turned in the only distinguished performance in their most undistinguished features. In more mainstream productions, such as Doug Liman’s rave-culture black comedy Go or Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead, Polley appears to have wandered onto the set by mistake. Her decision to turn down the role of Penny Lane in Almost Famous could be called a serious error—especially since it earned the incomparably bland Kate Hudson an Oscar nomination—but it’s difficult to imagine Polley’s pensiveness mixing well with Cameron Crowe’s wide-eyed sentimentalism. Still, she’s earned enough accolades as a perennial Next Big Thing to land on the cover of Vanity Fair with other budding hotshots. Playing the part to perfection, she complained when the magazine misidentified the vintage jacket she brought from home as a Tommy Hilfiger.
Given her obvious ambivalence toward being in the spotlight, Polley’s decision to sideline her acting career—and, as far as I can tell, her activism—in favor of working behind the camera is merely a natural progression. Although she may not yet have established a recognizable style, she has certainly settled on a subject: marriage—or, more accurately, commitment and its discontents. All three of her imperfect but occasionally revelatory films dwell on the ruts of monogamy, the allure of the bourgeois cocoon, and the ploys required to manage the most intimate divisions of labor.
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Polley’s directorial debut, Away From Her (2006), tracks a septuagenarian married couple’s attempt to navigate a retirement that has been permanently unsettled by the wife’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Although the film met with unanimous accolades (including two Oscar nominations), none of them sufficiently underlined the unlikelihood of an inexperienced twentysomething first-time director making such an elegant, searching film about the inevitable and unexpected heartaches of aging. Though Away From Her provides a relatively faithful adaptation of Alice Munro’s story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” it gains much of its power from the curiosity of Polley’s gaze. With calm lucidity, she projects her awe at the story’s central relationship; the movie owes its richness to the fact that it was made by a person much younger than its protagonists, one who can only guess at the magnitude of regret and the magnificence of forgiveness. Rarely moving the camera, Polley bathes the couple in sunlight reflected off snow and suggests that the callow exuberance of youth pales in relation to the thornier emotions of old age. The film is a resolutely unradical debut, yet still smacks of a certain boldness.
The opening shots are a visual corollary to the fluid narrative economy of Munro’s story. The viewer first encounters Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie) as they cross-country ski over the level snowscapes near their rural Ontario lake house. In the first shot, the two are side by side; in the second, they proceed in different directions; in the third, they are together again, back on their precarious course. Although they appear to be a portrait of domestic bliss, drinking wine with every meal in a house that Munro describes as “both luxurious and disorderly, with rugs crooked on the floors and cup rings bitten into the table varnish,” the couple’s surface contentment barely conceals a past history of betrayal and recrimination. The details are revealed in muted flashback: Grant, a retired professor, was also a philanderer, and we’re led to believe that whatever rapprochement he and Fiona negotiated was tentative and hard-won.