SALT LAKE CITY (CP) _ Canadian actress and director Sarah Polley confessed to being nervous about how an American audience would receive her feature-film debut, "Away From Her," as she arrived for its Salt Lake City gala premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
"It’s exciting to see how it will play outside of Canada," Polley said as she fought off jitters before taking to the stage at Salt Lake City’s downtown Rose Wagner Center to welcome the crowd and introduce her film.
"I have absolutely no idea."
"But this all feels like gravy," added Polley, 28, dressed in a red silk shirt and black pants.
"I was so happy to get to make the film in the first place, and I was so thrilled the reaction wasn’t horrible at the Toronto film festival, so this just feels like icing. I owe a lot to both these festivals."
Polley need not have worried that the film, a bittersweet love story about a couple married for 45 years and the intrusion of Alzheimer’s disease into their idyllic life together in rural Ontario, would flop here at Sundance. There was barely a dry eye in the house as the final credits rolled on the film late Friday night. Audience members not overcome with emotion cheered lustily.
"Away from Her" stars Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie, unspeakably lovely in her 60s, as Grant and Fiona, a couple still sweetly in love in their twilight years despite past infidelities and ups and downs in their long union. It’s based on a short story by Canadian literary star Alice Munro. When Fiona insists on being sent to a care facility when her condition worsens, a reluctant Grant goes along with it, only to watch her forget about him and become deeply attached to another man.
Grant, guilt-ridden about his own past affairs, is agonized, but after her new friend leaves the home and Fiona falls into what seems like a life-threatening depression without him, he does all he can to re-unite them and save his wife.
The 76-year-old Pinsent, the Newfoundland-born actor so familiar to Canadian audiences after decades as a beloved presence on stage, screen and television, is a revelation as Grant _ and someone Polley fervently wanted for the role.
Pinsent’s own wife of 44 years, Charmion King-Pinsent, died just two weeks ago at age 81, adding a particular pathos to the role.
"I feel like we all love him," Polley said on the eve of her trek to Utah to take in the 10-day festival in the nearby ski resort town of Park City where 10 other Canadian productions will be screened.
"He’s somehow part of the national psyche, but we do sort of take those people for granted sometimes, and we sometimes forget we have one of the best actors of his generation in our midst," she said.
"I was so excited to write that role for him when I read the story and saw him in it, and it was so obvious that you needed someone with that instant charm and that sense of who he is and who he was. He’s amazing."
The Sundance audience seemed to agree. One couple _ Catalina Corwin, 44, and Dennis King, 53 _ cuddled and kissed throughout the film, particularly during the many moving glimpses of the profound and selfless love Grant so clearly feels for Fiona.
"It was very moving, and I guess you could say a great date movie," said Corwin. She and King have been dating for a few months.
"It was really about true love, enduring love, and how it can survive so much," King added.
Another audience member said she was blown away by Pinsent’s performance.
"The actor, I had never heard of him before, but he was unbelievably good," said Linda Allen, 57, a Salt Lake City resident eager to catch the film when she read about it.
"He was really heartbreaking. And the film itself was so moving, it just had so much insight and sensitivity about growing older _ I was really surprised that someone so young was behind it."
Wayne Clarkson, head of Telefilm Canada, was delighted to see the film chosen as the Salt Lake City premiere gala.
"It’s not often you get to the mountains of Utah and watch the premiere of a magnificent Canadian film and take in a magnificent performance by Gordon Pinsent," Clarkson said following the premiere.
"It’s really a fantastic night, for Sarah, for Gordon and for Canada."