It’s only in cinema – and North American cinema particularly – that a sober and straight film about an ageing married couple facing the onset of Alzheimer’s would be viewed as daring. Yet it’s remarkable that 28-year-old Canadian actress, Sarah Polley has chosen as her first feature film as a writer and director to adapt Alice Munro’s short story, ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’, seeing as producers’ inner alarm bells and commerical divining-rods usually start to overheat at the first signs of a grey hair. Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent are Fiona and Grant, a feisty, bookish couple in their early seventies who are enjoying a lakeside retirement punctuated only by testy references to Grant’s past philandering and Fiona’s memory loss. When Alzheimer’s is diagnosed, Fiona and her husband decide that she should move into a care home. The separation is hard enough for Gordon, but when Fiona strikes up a relationship with a fellow patient, Aubrey (Michael Murphy), it’s more than he can be expected to bear.
The most compelling element of Polley’s script and Munro’s story is the suggestion that Fiona’s Alzheimer’s and her behaviour are partly Gordon’s crosses to bear for his past misdemeanours. When Fiona ceases to recognise him and starts to orchestrate her own fling, we see the pain and suspicion in his eyes. It’s a shame that Polley relies on flashbacks to remind us of the couple’s 1960s heyday, and the resolution (of sorts) is certainly less credible than the journey, but the writing and the peformances are intelligent enough to make this a rare if difficult pleasure, and Christie especially shines.