The end of last year saw the release of Sarah Polley‘s fourth film Women Talking. The film stars a strong ensemble of Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Ben Whislaw, Frances McDormand, and more. It is nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, no doubt a highlight of Polley’s career thus far. Join us below as we celebrate Polley’s filmmaking and acting career in this month’s Retrospective Roundtable.
Sarah Polley was attempting to forge her identity as an actor as an adult, and her role as Harper in Guinevere, a scion of a wealthy family who expect her to go to Harvard Law, was the perfect role for her at this time. Polley’s Harper starts off as a reluctant potential law school student who becomes infatuated with Stephen Rea’s Connie, a photographer with a massive ego but enough charisma to lure unsuspecting young women to him under the guise of nurturing their talent. Polley is convincing both as the naive, protected young woman that Connie tricks and also as a wiser, cannier adult who is fully aware of Connie’s BS. In real life, Polley always sounds intelligent and confident when she talks, but she’s able to bring a hesitance and lack of self-confidence befitting Harper in the early parts of the movie. As her character develops, she manages to pull off scenes of intense emotion and sad wisdom, especially as Harper must grapple with both how terrible Connie truly is and how valuable he has been to making her a different person, one who had the courage to stand up to her parents, especially her mother played by Jean Smart. Through Guinevere, Polley proved that she could easily handle complex roles, especially in complicated human dramas, the type of movies that she would start directing. – Eugene Kang
No Such Thing (2001)
Hal Hartley is best known for his talky dramas with colorful characters. He seems to thrive with a specific type of literate scumbum, such as Henry Fool. So Hartley didn’t seem to be the best fit for a high-concept monster movie like No Such Thing. Sarah Polley plays a young intern at a news agency who is investigating the death of her boyfriend in Iceland. She encounters the monster who killed her boyfriend and soon aids the monster in his quest to die. The monster (Robert John Burke) is in the Hal Hartley mold of eloquent scumbum and much of the humor of the piece is supposed to originate from this dichotomy between ancient myth and modern sensibilities. But No Such Thing falls apart under its conceit. It fails to be truly funny or incisive and instead feels like a film student’s clumsy attempt to be provocative. Sarah Polley truly has an impossible role in which she must play both young and naive news intern but also sensible and determined partner to the monster. To her credit, Polley does both really well. She is an eminently sympathetic character even when the script and story serve her poorly. This movie is rightfully forgotten but there’s enough Hartley quirkiness and some good performances by Polley, Helen Mirren and Julie Christie to make this somewhat worthwhile viewing. – Eugene Kang
Away From Her (2006)
The basic plot of Away From Her, a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s is put into a convalescent home by her husband only to fall in love with another patient there, may seem to be ripe for trite melodrama, but it is actually a frank, clear-eyed and sometimes humorous relationship drama. The tragedy of the situation plays out in Grant’s (Gordon Pinsent) stoicism as circumstances force him to witness his wife Fiona (Julie Christie) romance a similarly ill patient. Frank suspects that Fiona is faking to get revenge on her husband’s previous infidelities was of greater importance to the story, but even if it had started out that way, Frank’s suspicions quickly gets subsumed by his realization of how fragile his wife really is and that such emotional issues need to be second to her health. As an experienced and accomplished actress herself, Sarah Polley really knows how to work with actors and both Pinsent and Christie convincingly play a couple with a lot of history. Christie is especially convincing as a woman with Alzheimer’s, especially when we see how much of a young, childlike woman she is at her heart, and we can seen why her husband would let her do what she is doing ultimately, no matter how much it hurts him. – Eugene Kang
Mr. Nobody (2009)
Jaco Van Dormeal’s Mr. Nobody is a mind-bending sci-fi journey into the life of Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto). The film is narrated by the elderly Nobody as he looks back at what his life might – or might not have – been following the moment of a life-changing decision. The said decision that Nemo made occurred when he was 9 years old and his parents were undergoing a divorce. Nemo has to choose between life with his mother and life with his father, and Mr. Nobody revels in showing us both (and then some).
For a film that risks becoming too cold and methodical, which happens often for films that focus on philosophy and the hypothetical, actors are tasked with the brunt of responsibility for balancing emotion and audiences’ experiences enjoying the film. While Leto’s performance can be seen as stiff, Sarah Polley’s performance as Elise is anything but and provides Mr. Nobody with a crucial injection of pathos midway through the film. Nemo falls in love with Elise, though there is another man who has captured her heart. He nonetheless pursues Elise and one storyline sees the couple as parents of three children, but Elise is depressed, guilt-ridden that she is not the mother she hopes to be, and ultimately leaves Nemo for her former flame. Elise’s character and Nemo’s relationship with her is tragic, and Polley’s portrayal of Elise draws our sympathy and sadness, reminding us of how unfortunate and weary life can be to live. It’s an unfortunate reality for many of us, but Polley’s performance provides this deeply human element to this thoughtful film. – Alex Sitaras
Take This Waltz (2011)
Far from a muted indie relationship drama, which were all the rage in the mid-aughts, Take This Waltz is a thoughtful exploration of marriage and fidelity. Polley’s writing shines as her characters are fully-fleshed people with interesting personality traits. Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen play a couple who are playful at heart with dialogue that sounds cutesy but sounds convincingly like how couples who have known each other for a long time will talk. We see this same playful heart when Williams’ character entertains a dalliance with an intriguing neighbor (Luke Kirby) in a fully realized, complex performance from Williams, possibly one of her best in her illustrious career. Polley also manages to include some visual flair with gorgeous scenes of great emotional significance, such as a picnic on a beach and an amusement park ride. It’s clear that Polley comes from primarily an actor’s viewpoint in her approach to filmmaking as seen in the performances and a writer a close second. So it is refreshing to see her stretch herself and take greater risks visually, which wouldn’t have been obvious given the intimate nature of the subject matter. – Eugene Kang
Stories We Tell (2012)
Her first and only documentary so far, Sarah Polley turned inwards in Stories We Tell. The film uncovers a family secret through a mix of narration, interviews, and faux home movies. The story is uniquely Polley’s to tell, and she does so with a balance of restraint and flourish. Family is at the center of Stories We Tell and emotions can run high when discussing matters of infidelity, but Polley and her family hold an empathetic view when discussing family, mistakes, the past, and any lingering trauma. What the family bears in common is their love for Polley and it is very visible as her family recalls the past in front of her camera.
Stories We Tell is an innovative look at storytelling, an example of a documentary where the documentarian interacts with and is central to the story being told. Like Polley’s fiction feature films, she places emphasis on character (in this case, real people) and the relationships that form and change over time between people who are close. Watching the film brings you close to Polley’s family and invites you to consider the past and what stories your descendants might be able to tell if you had the chance to ask. – Alex Sitaras
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