My current Top 5

My current Top 5


Best Actress 2007: Julie Christie in "Away from Her"

For a long time Julie Christie appeared to be on her best way to take home her second Oscar for her performance as Fiona Anderson, a woman suffering from Alzheimer disease, in the critically acclaimed movie Away from Her. Her dominance over most critics award already seemed like a good sign but she also scored points where it counted – at the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Award. A victory now seemed almost given until the night that changed it all – the BAFTA ceremony. The fact that British acting legend Julie Christie had to step back and let French actress Marion Cotillard take the ‘British Oscar’ seemed almost like a message to the Academy: ‘It’s okay if you vote for Marion instead of Julie. Look, we did it, too.’ Marion Cotillard now gained steam and finally was the one to receive the Academy Award.

Looking back on the race, it doesn’t seem that surprising that Julie Christie lost the Oscar. Hers is a very subtle and underplayed performance that very often slips in the background of the picture – a little like Sissy Spacek who was the frontrunner a very long time for her performance in In the Bedroom until a more ‘obvious’ performance came along. These kind of subtle performances in almost secondary roles can easily disappoint the viewer, especially after such a wave of critical praise.

But even though, Julie Christie certainly did an admirable piece of work in a very underwritten part. Overall, there seem to be two words to describe Julie Christie’s performance in Away from Her: beautiful and limited.

There is no denying that she is absolutely luminous and brightens up the screen whenever she appears. Her soft voice and face create wonderful moments of heartbreaking hopelessness as she slips further and further away into the darkness of her mind. On the other hand, she suffers from the same problem that Judi Dench had in a similar role in Iris – the fact that the character is reduced to a symbol of suffering with little much else to offer. In fact, Judi Dench had even more advantages in her part. Iris spent some time to show the women before the illness and portrayed how important it was for her to finish her book before it would be too late. Plus, Kate Winslet’s Iris in the flashback scenes laid the foundation for Judi Dench’s performance and made it much easier to understand. Julie Christie didn’t have any of this luxury in Away from Her. The movie begins immediately with her disease, there is no deeper look into her character and the script never gives a real chance to widen her performance since it only demands her to suffer gracefully. The result is the same as in Iris: while the leading lady gets the showy but at the same time unthankful task of demonstrating the process of the disease, the actor who plays the husband steps more and more into the foreground and gets to deliver a much more complex and interesting performance since he is the one who has to cope with the disease in a much more different, but much more interesting kind of way.

So, there is a lot that is working against Julie Christie but she miraculously overcomes most of these obstacles by giving a devastating performance that connects beautifully with the simplicity of the character and never tries to appear as more than it really is.

What becomes immediately noticeable while watching Julie Christie is how much grace she puts into her performance and the character of Fiona. ‘I think all we can aspire to in this situation is a little bit of grace’ is what Fiona tells her husband Grant. But while it’s certainly easy to admire this acting style, one can’t help but wonder: is there a thing as too graceful? Julie Christie turns Fiona into such a quiet voice of dignity that she almost appears saint-like in the acceptance of her own fate. While this is certainly an interesting and moving approach to the part, a little bit more three-dimensionality and openness would have resulted in a more complex and captivating performance. This overwhelming amount of dignity also puts Julie Christie into danger of resting too much on the fate of the character that the screenplay dictates instead of trying to create this fate herself. A couple of times one can’t help feel that Julie Christie rested too much on the mysterious effect of her voice and her sad face and stayed too much on the surface of the character while trying to hide this behind a subtlety that sometimes makes her performance seem much greater than it really is.

Still, it’s certainly not Julie Christie’s task to show the complexities of her diseas but to provide the hunting images that serve as the catalyst to show the pain and the suffering that Alzheimer brings to the patient and the relatives. In the pure heartbreaking honesty she brings to the role she even surpasses Judi Dench who might have been given a better character but wasn’t quite able to display the tragedy in such an effective way. As mentioned, Julie Christie doesn’t really get anything from the screenplay – she only has herself to rely on and she is too much a pro and too confident in her own abilities to not know that this is everything she needs. The story is never as moving as it could have been if Fiona would have been written more three-dimensional but Julie Christie achieves the maximum that is possible. Her long, lost looks of confusion that she, as soon as she realizes them herself, tries to hide behind a relaxed laugh, are certainly unforgettable. Fiona is very well aware of what is happening to her but it seems that she wants to take the burden herself and make it as easy as possible for her husband.

But there is also a little more to the story – the history of Grant’s infidelity during their marriage. The fact that Fiona knows about this but at the same time doesn’t show her true feelings makes the later scenes when she apparently begins to lose more and more memories so fascinating. One could easily assume that Fiona may be punishing her husband for what he did to her years ago by now doing almost the same to him – something that Grant even suspects. But Julie Christie’s performance never really hints into this direction. It seems that she wants to keep him out of her whole decline as much as possible. Maybe out of love, to spare him the suffering, or out of mistrust. When she tells him that her new friend at the home, with whom she spends more time than with her husband, doesn’t confuse her it is certainly also a wink at her husband that he does, in fact, confuse her, since he is demanding so much from her that she can’t give, since his image also seems to remind her of dishonesty and betrayal, feelings that she can’t comprehend and handle.

The tragic twist of irony in the story is that Fiona is the one who wanted to handle the situation as practical as possible and not create any unnecessary problems but in the end, it’s not possible for her anymore. In the end, she is the one who is causing so much pain to her husband even though she wanted to avoid this. Julie Christie is wonderful in the moments when she is talking to Grant. The confusion on her face that she tries to cover with a fake confidence show that Fiona is aware that she probably should remember something – but it seems not clear to her what this might be. She is not really aware but also not unaware. Julie Christie’s glorious face portrays with a haunting simplicity the pain in Fiona as she goes back and forth from light to darkness. The moments of almost terror on Fiona’s face when Grant confronts her and tells her that he is her husband is probably the most memorable moment in Julie Christie’s performance as it seems like a wasted opportunity but also the highlight at the same time. She wonderfully shows the confusion in Fiona that is turning into fear because she seems to be aware of her own decline at this moment. Maybe there are some little memories left in her but it seems outside of her control to reach them. At the same time one again wishes that a moment like this would have been better used. As quickly as the panic came to Julie Christie’s face it is also gone again.

Fiona is a character that is rather thin and appears more to be a plot-device sometimes but it is thanks to Julie Christie’s simple and shining performance that she becomes so haunting.. It’s an unforgettable and heartbreaking portrayal of a personal tragedy that never turned into sentimentality and is played with a sometimes overdone but still incredibly effective mix of grace and dignity that gets

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