Saturday, February 4, 2017

Sarah Polley: Stories She Tells

The 2017 O Canada Blogathon is an event devoted to Canadian actors and films, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. For a list of participating bloggers, visit the links at either site.

It's been a long time since I saw The Sweet Hereafter, but I remember when it came out, what a big deal people made over this Canadian drama. I remember liking the movie, though it's not the kind you wanna watch over and over. It's pretty heavy.

One aspect of the film that lingers in the memory, however, is the performance of former child star and Canadian TV actress Sarah Polley. The Toronto native had bounced back and forth between the small and big screens, at home and abroad (perhaps you saw her at age four in Terry Gillam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) before Hereafter made her famous.

Polley in The Sweet Hereafter
While she has had flirtations with Hollywood and American cinema in general (perhaps you saw her in Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake), she is better known north of the 49th Parallel, as much for her political activism (she once lost two teeth in the middle of a protest in Toronto) as for her acting.

I'm here to talk about her second career as a writer-director. It began in 1999, two years after the release of Hereafter, with two short films. I couldn't find Don't Think Twice anywhere online, but the other, The Best Day of My Life, is available on YouTube. A tale of teen angst and unrequited love, it was part of the On the Fly Festival, a showcase for films shot in a day, edited in a day, and screened in a day.

Given these time restrictions, Polley did a good job. There are some nice visual compositions, and she even changes from black & white to color at a key moment in the story.

Polley on the set of Away From Her
Two years later, another short, I Shout Love, a marriage-in-crisis drama, won the Genie (the Canadian Oscar) for Best Live Action Short Drama, as well as the ACTRA (the Canadian Emmy) for Outstanding Performance, Female, after it aired on the CBC in 2002. The IMDB reviews make it sound really good.

In a 2010 Indiewire interview, Polley talked about what drew her to making movies:
Throughout most of my acting career, I had zero interest in filmmaking. I always wanted to write, though, and felt an urgent need to express myself more literally than I could as an actor. About eight years ago, I decided on a whim to make a short film and discovered that I knew almost nothing about the process of actually putting a film together, and that I had never been so challenged or rewarded by anything in my life. I knew then that I never wanted to stop.
Another short and a TV gig followed, and then, in 2006, Polley struck gold when she adapted Alice Munro's short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" into the feature film Away From Her. It won seven Genie Awards, including Best Motion Picture, Best Achievement in Direction and Best Adapted Screenplay; two Toronto Film Critics Association awards; the Writers Guild of Canada award for feature film; three Directors Guild of Canada awards, numerous international print and online accolades, and the Golden Globe for Julie Christie's lead performance.

Polley on the set of Stories We Tell
Polley followed up Away with two more domestic dramas: one fictional, Take This Waltz with Michelle Williams; the other non-fictional, the documentary Stories We Tell, about the history of her family. My posts about both of these films are elsewhere on this blog. Last summer, she announced her next project, writing and producing a Netflix mini-series adaptation of the Margaret Atwood crime novel Alias Grace. American Psycho's Mary Harron will direct.

Polley's loyalty to Canadian cinema is such that at the height of her fame as an actress, she turned down the role that went to Kate Hudson in Almost Famous to make a Canadian film instead. A quote from a 2008 interview with MovieMaker sums up her feelings on the matter:
I think there is more creative freedom for filmmakers [in Canada]. That affects me as an actor, too. When I sign on to a film, I'm signing on to a filmmaker's vision of the film, not the studio's vision or anybody else's. I just want to know that it's going to be the filmmaker's film that I'm making. Of course, as a filmmaker, I feel like, in Canada, it's a given that a first-time filmmaker always has final cut. Why would I choose to work anywhere else?
Other films directed by Sarah Polley:
Take This Waltz
Stories We Tell

John Candy
William Shatner


  1. Ooh – I didn't know Sarah P was working on a film version of "Alias Grace". I'm already putting it on my calendar.

    I'm really glad you profiled Sarah P., and not just because she's Canadian, and a female director, but because she is incredibly talented. Thank you for joining the blogathon wit your thoughts on her career.

  2. I had gotten the impression that Polley was the kind of filmmaker who really marched to her own beat, but I didn't realize how much so until I researched her for this post. You gotta respect somebody able to turn their back on Hollywood in favor of doing their own thing.

  3. Polley is one of the most intelligent and talented people involved in cinema. I've been a fan of hers since The Weight of Water -- well, really since The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, although it was years before I cottoned on that the adorable gap-toothed kid was the same person as the actor and director. Thank you so much for this brief profile of her!

  4. Ms. Polley is a committed and creative person who has won my respect. She is true to herself and the pride of Canadian filmmaking. Your look at her life/career is enlightening.

  5. Many thanks. There's much more to her life that I could've also discussed, but I was mostly interested in her as a director.

  6. What a great woman. THe more we read blogs, the more we learn. THanks for introducing me to Sarah Polley, I'll follow her career from now on.
    Thanks for the kind comment!

  7. Naturally I'd recommend watching HEREAFTER to start, then jumping to her films as a director.

  8. Liked your choice and focus on her filmmaking. I've seen Away From Her and Stories We Tell and she has a great touch for those kinds of family dynamics and changes. Thanks for taking part in this blogathon!

  9. You're welcome. And happy 150th to all you canucks, eh?


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