Away From Her and Sarah Polley's Lost Commentary

2006's Away From Her is a movie I've been meaning to cover on this site since year 1.  But every time I start capturing screenshots, I wind up re-watching the whole movie again, and then the night's wasted and I don't get it done.  But thinking about it, there really aren't that many movies arresting enough to hook me back in every time I get close to it, so that says a lot.
Away From Her is a tragic romance and the feature film debut of actress Sarah Polley as a writer/ director.  I was already a huge fan of hers in front of the camera, and we've looked at several of her films here already, including My Life Without Me and Atom Egoyan's Exotica - in fact, Egoyan also produced this film.  But seeing Away From Her had me thinking she could do no wrong.  But then her next film turned out to be a big let-down... not terrible, but writing-wise, much less mature.  Here, she's adapting a story by Alice Munro, which I think is what keeps this film so acutely on track, freeing Polley to invoke beautiful acting set-pieces from her top-shelf cast, including Gordon Pinsent, Julie Christie, Olympia Dukakis and Kristen Thomson.
Admittedly, it's not a perfect film.  Many people have rightly called it to task for white-washing dementia, a few moments are embarrassingly twee, like the comic relief retired sportscaster who roams the retirement home announcing everything as if it was a sports event, and the use of younger actors to portray the leads' past selves in silent flashbacks feels like they've been overly influenced by 2001's Iris.  And there's a distracting foot fetish reference that'll pull you right out of the film for two to three minutes.  But the flaws are few and far enough apart that they don't spoil the film.  It's a terrific story that goes in unexpected directions (it doesn't just hit the obvious notes and story points you would guess from the trailer), and while Christie cleaned up in the awards department (winning or nominated for the Academy Award, BAFTA, Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild Award, etc), it's really Pinsent who steals the show.  Polley also got an Oscar nod for this, and while I don't actually put a lot of stock in the Academy Awards' choices, I point that out to at least show that this is much more than an Iris knock-off or Lifetime "Disease Of the Week" melodrama.
Away From Her hit DVD as a new release in September, 2007.  Another reason I wanted to cover this movie here at DVD Exotica is that fans of this movie should know that there is a distinctly different 2-disc special edition released by Mongrel Media in Canada as opposed to the Lions Gate one here in the United State, and both are very much of interest.
US Lions Gate DVD on top; Canadian Mongrel Media DVD below.
Image-wise, there's not a huge difference. The framing is identical at 1.78:1, despite the Mongrel DVD claiming 1.85:1 on the back of its case (really, how do so many major studio releases keep getting their aspect ratio wrong on their cases?).  The US DVD is a bit redder, and the Canadian's a bit on more on the yellow side; but it's very minimal.  And seriously, they both have ugly compression issues and edge enhancement... at first glance, I thought this was on standard definition digital cameras, and that's why it had never been released on blu.  But no, they used 35mm, so this could seriously benefit from an upgrade.  As it is, at least they're both anamorphic in almost the right ratio and not interlaced.

Both releases give you a choice between 5.1 and stereo mixes, as well as French subtitles.  The Canadian DVD also has a French dub and the US DVD also has Spanish subtitles.  No English subs on either version.
But here's where things get interesting: the differing special features.  The US DVD has an audio commentary by Julie Christie, where she runs low on things to say in the second half, but overall is pretty good.  It also includes the film's deleted scenes, with optional audio commentary by Sarah Polley.  Frustratingly, Polley refers back to the commentary she recorded for the full film ("as I said on the main commentary track"), but that commentary isn't on here!  The only other extras are some bonus trailers, an advertisement about an Alzheimer's fighting charity that autoplays at the start, and some paper inserts about Alzheimer's with writing by Olympia Dukakis.
The French 2-disc set does not have the Christie commentary (or the bonus trailers, ad and inserts), but it does have the deleted scenes with the optional commentary.  Frustratingly, it doesn't have Polley's commentary for the complete film, either - what the heck happened to it, people?!  But it does include a brief 'making of' featurette, the film's actual trailer (which somehow Lions Gate missed) and most notably, Polley's early short film, I Shout Love!  It's about 40 minutes and stars Away From Her's Kristen Thomson as a nutcase who forces her ex-boyfriend to reenact all her favorite moments from their relationship on video.  It's a little unbelievable how readily he goes along with it, but if you can suspend your disbelief for the premise, it's a pretty well acted and engaging entry, especially for a very young director's early work.  Unfortunately, it's non-anamorphic widescreen and interlaced to Hell, which is surprising when the film on disc 1 is presented properly.  But it's made all the more rewarding for Polley fans because, unlike the feature film, it does include an audio commentary from Polley, and it's really quite interesting.
So, it's annoying about the Polley commentary, and in order to have a substantial special edition, you kind of have to piece it together by buying the two separate releases (there's also a French DVD that apparently has some unique interviews, but I'm not sure how English-friendly it all is).  This film is in serious need of a blu-ray special edition with a fresh scan of the negatives and all the extras compiled, including the commentary and some new stuff.  It's got a lot of major awards under its belt, so you'd think there would be studio interest, but these days, if it isn't horror/ exploitation, the collector's market doesn't seem to care, so good luck.  On the up-side, though, both DVDs can be had super cheap (the US disc goes for literally a penny on Amazon), so it's really no great hardship.  And between both editions, you've still got a pretty great special edition of a terrific film... at least by old DVD standards.

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