My Life Without Me

on September 26, 2003 by Sheri Linden
What would happen if a young married woman with two little girls learns she has a few months to live and tells not a soul, choosing instead to make the most of her remaining time? What if she draws up a list, "Things to Do Before I Die," and in quick succession crosses off items? As those developments play out in "My Life Without Me," the apparent ease with which she accomplishes each goal is something of a cosmic joke, given the card life has dealt her. That her impending death brings her back to life from a state of sleepwalking is the larger paradox that drives the film. It's a rich idea, but only partly realized in this quiet, intimately shot drama. Sensitive acting far outshines a script that bangs each idea so squarely on the head it leaves little room for the viewer to respond. Still, with its impressive cast, this English-language Spanish-Canadian co-production, which competed at the Berlin festival, could prove an art-house draw.

Sarah Polley is believable and engaging as no-nonsense Anne, whose cancer is beyond treatment when it's diagnosed. She refuses hospitalization, telling family and friends she has anemia. Controlling but compassionate, she's patient and supportive with her sweet but limited husband (Scott Speedman), the only boyfriend she's ever had, and with her diet-obsessed co-worker (Amanda Plummer). Tensions flare more readily with her mother (Deborah Harry), a woman all but immobilized by disappointment, while her father (Alfred Molina) mopes in jail. But with the clock ticking, Anne realizes that she too has been living in a state of defeat and, fulfilling the boldest item on her list, embarks on a love affair. Mark Ruffalo plays the gentle, battered soul who introduces her to "Middlemarch," Blossom Dearie and illicit passion.

Spanish writer-director Isabel Coixet, working from Nanci Kincaid's story "Pretending the Bed Is a Raft," clearly intended that her protagonist have more vitality than the variously numbed, beaten down and despairing characters around her. But the approach creates a dramatic imbalance, leaving Anne's friends and family feeling like a set of literary constructs. The exceptions are a powerful scene between Anne and her likely successor (Leonor Watling of "Talk to Her") and, especially, the interactions with her doctor (Julian Richings), a man haunted by death. Richings' fine performance as the only one who knows Anne is dying gives Polley something to play against, making their connection charged and real. If there had been more such unpredictable, rough edges in Anne's endgame, "My Life Without Me" would have been far more convincing and compelling. Starring Sarah Polley, Scott Speedman, Deborah Harry, Mark Ruffalo, Leonor Watling, Julian Richings, Amanda Plummer, Maria de Medeiros and Alfred Molina. Directed and written by Isabel Coixet. Produced by Esther Garcia and Gordon McLennan. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Rated R for language. Running time: 105 min

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