Like the cast's performances, the film is never mawkish and never less than touching.

It begins with forgetfulness. Scrubbing the dishes after dinner, Fiona (Julie Christie) carries a skillet from the sink and puts it in the freezer. When she walks away, her husband, Grant (Gordon Pinsent), pulls the pan out, frowns at it and throws it in the trash, where it won't cause any more confusion.

That kind of closely observed behavior is the soul of "Away From Her," a wise and tender Alzheimer's drama by Sarah Polley that she adapted from a short story by Alice Munro. The Canadian actress, making her directing debut at age 28, has painted a touching portrait of a 50-year marriage hanging by the threads of Fiona's fraying memory.

The couple lives in hearty retirement on the edge of a snow-covered lake, cross-country skiing, reading and socializing with friends — all the brain-healthy activities that age specialists recommend. But inevitably the disease runs its course. When Fiona can't retrace her steps after a stroll into town, Grant reluctantly places her in a glossy nursing home.

His distress takes a further turn when Fiona forms a romantic attachment with Aubrey (Michael Murphy), an old acquaintance who's now wheelchair-bound and nearly mute. As Grant fades from her consciousness, Fiona becomes the other man's constant companion. Loath to deny Fiona a final season of happiness, Grant becomes a troubled onlooker, worried that she's punishing him for old infidelities.

Polley can be over-literal. When someone describes the mind's shutdown as being like house lights going off one after another, that's exactly what Polley shows us. Too, the film can be didactic. Watching an Iraq firefight on the news, Fiona exclaims, "How could they have forgotten Vietnam?" And there's an unconvincing symmetry in the way the story comes full circle when Grant meets Aubrey's wife (Olympia Dukakis).

But the film's strengths are more important. Christie, a '60s screen icon rarely seen in recent years, makes a bewitching Fiona. One moment you see her as a trim, well-groomed and vivacious woman. Then her eyes dim and drift as her mind clouds over.

Pinsent's performance is a study in stoicism masking great pain. Even the minor characters are memorable. Wendy Crewson is a standout as the chipper, officious nursing home manager, a master of bureaucratic doublespeak who declares her patients happy as clams. And Murphy, in a virtually silent performance, poignantly communicates Aubrey's possessiveness, confusion and fear.

Like the cast's performances, the film is never mawkish and never less than touching.