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Although she’s ended up in some lousy movies, as an actress Sarah Polley has had a dedication to serious, worthy fare such as Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter. She claims similar terrain in her first feature as a director, quietly exploring the latter days of a marriage that’s icing over in frozen, small-town Ontario. Bolstered by assured performances, Away From Her is a compelling drama, if at times a bit too literary.

“I never wanted to be away from her,” explains Grant (Gordon Pinsent) of Fiona (Julie Christie), as the silvery couple cross-country skis to Jonathan Goldsmith’s jazzy faux-baroque guitar music. But Fiona is going away—mentally, because she’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and physically, because she insists on moving to Meadowlake, an assisted-living facility. “I think I may be beginning to disappear,” she says, an unusually lyrical expression of a condition that few people find especially poetic.

Gordon is lost without Fiona and shocked when he learns that he’s not allowed to visit her during her first 30 days at Meadowlake. When the forced separation is over, Gordon reappears as a suitor, bearing flowers, only to find that his wife has developed an “attachment” to another patient, Aubrey (Michael Murphy). The addled man “doesn’t confuse me,” Fiona says, in one of her many remarks that wound Gordon. Yet he remains faithful to her, ultimately visiting Aubrey’s wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis), in hopes of sustaining the two patients’ relationship. Fiona is more lucid when with Aubrey, and Gordon dreads her move to the second floor, which is reserved for those patients in overt decline.

These events are chronologically scattered, much like Fiona’s memory. As his wife becomes increasingly foggy, Gordon is left with his doubt and guilt. When he was a college professor, he dallied with some of his attractive young students, and at times he feels that Fiona is now, consciously or not, punishing him. All he can do is fight for his wife, protecting her against such uncharacteristic acts as wearing a “tacky” sweater. Yet what he’s defending is the Fiona he remembers, not the Fiona who doesn’t remember him. And, he recognizes ruefully, the 44-year marriage he’s trying to sustain is actually his view of that relationship. Fiona’s understanding of their union is now irretrievably forgotten.

Scripted by Polley from Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” Away From Her is an autumnal movie, rendered in cold hues and keyed to waltz-tempo music (including two non-rocking Neil Young songs). Infinitely respectful of its characters and their pain, the film is anything but the brash statement that might be expected from a director who’s yet to hit 30.

Indeed, Polley is a little too deferential, especially toward Munro’s language. Everyday touches such as the condition of the couple’s kitchen, which looks realistically grimy, are undercut by high-flown dialogue. Fiona may be the only Alzheimer’s patient ever to declare “there’s something delicious in oblivion,” and in one jarringly contrived scene, a senile ex-announcer uses his play-by-play skills to comment on Gordon’s state of mind. Christie is as radiant as she was as a ’60s sex symbol, which is something of a problem: She seems too young and robust for her role, and her lack of apparent frustration at her declining memory is unpersuasive. Polley clearly didn’t want to make one of those acting showcases that equate raised voices and violent gestures with truth, but the scrupulously low-key Away From Her would be more convincing if it included more rage against the dying of the light.