Scenes of the Canadian countryside in winter, in all its silence and stark beauty, set the tone that pervades Away from Her, which tells the story of a marriage in winter, and how the two people in it try to cope with the living silence that is about to descend upon one of them.

Let it be said at the outset: This film is both heartbreaking and heartwarming--but not in the way one might expect. Both sentimentality and sensationalism are kept at bay, thanks in part to the source material--a taut short story by Alice Munro--and to a finely wrought screenplay by actress/writer/director Sarah Polley. Most of all, however, what distinguishes Away from Her, and elevates it from the mawkish, is its perfectly chosen cast--especially Julie Christie in the central role of the aging but still beautiful Fiona Anderson, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

Alzheimer's, of course, robs its victims of memory and, eventually, personality--but it doesn't do that all at once. Fiona's memories, for example, return to her randomly, and, at first, that's how this movie's timeline unfolds. Early on we see Fiona's husband, Grant (Canada's sexy septuagenarian Gordon Pinsent), visiting the home of a woman named Marian (Olympia Dukakis), whom he'd never met. Gradually, in flashbacks and flash-forwards, it's revealed that Grant's wife Fiona and Marian's husband Aubrey (Michael Murphy) have been residents at Meadowlake, a residence for the aged and infirm. In fact, Fiona and Aubrey were quite close, becoming dependent on each other in much the way they had once been dependent on their respective spouses.

It becomes clear that there are two emotional thrusts to this story. The first concerns the pain and sacrifice a long-married couple must accept when facing the reality of a disease as tragically destructive as Alzheimer's; and the second reveals what can happen when both partners--the afflicted and the aggrieved--find the hope to go on living. In this case, both of them do find such hope.

While all the performances are outstanding--including the supporting roles played by Kristen Thomson and Wendy Crewson, as staff members at Meadowlake--it is Julie Christie who hits most of the film's major emotional high notes. She's a heartbreaker, she is. Christie imbues Fiona with flashes of that youthful "spark of life" her husband fell in love with 44 years earlier, as well as glimpses of the wronged wife who, in the middle years of their marriage, offered her mate acceptance but never forgiveness. Also, Christie--who's still a knockout at 66--gives Fiona the stature of a confident, intelligent woman who, as always, knows how to take matters into her own hands. All the more heartbreaking, then, to see, in her own words, that she is "about to disappear."

Wow. If nothing else, Away from Her makes us realize how much we've missed the screen presence of Julie Christie. Let's hope the multi-talented Sarah Polley--or one of her equally talented peers--will soon find another vehicle for her that's as worthy and affecting as this one.