My Life Without Me (2003)

My Life Without Me first published by Movie Gazette in 2003

Most films about terminal illness resort to a predictable set of clichés – melodramatic confrontations with friends and family, deathbed pathos, tears and joy at the wake, or, worst of all, the miracle cure at the eleventh hour. Isabel Coixet’s My Life Without Me manages to sidestep all of these, both because it ends before its cancer-afflicted protagonist Ann (Sarah Polley) dies, and more crucially because 23-year old Ann conceals her condition and imminent death from all those around her, including her beloved husband Don (Scott Speedman), her two young daughters, and her embittered mother (Deborah Harry).

In this way, the film, like Ann herself, avoids becoming overwhelmed by a flood of maudlin sentimentality, and is able instead to remain focussed on Ann’s efforts to work through a secret list of ‘Things to do before I die’, by, e.g., having an intense affair with Lee (the ubiquitous Mark Ruffalo), finding an appropriate new match (Leonor Watling) for her husband, and visiting her estranged father (Alfred Molina) in prison. This is a complicated snapshot of a young woman in crisis who refuses to become an object of pity, and who is driven by a single-minded desire to keep her family as happy as possible both during the brief time left to her and after.

Far from being some simplistic affirmation of the value of life, My Life Without Me is a tragedy – not, however, so much for what it does present as for what it does not. We never get to see Ann’s death, but we know it is inevitable – and we never get to see its aftermath, the life without her promised by the title, but it is difficult to suppose that its reality will conform to the happy picture of the future that Ann imagines to herself. Though she succeeds in concealing her illness from her husband and children for the duration of the film, it is clear that they must eventually find out one way or another, and we are left to wonder whether this whole elaborate deception, which Ann believes will soften the blow of her death, might in fact have the opposite effect. So in the end, the film is an elliptical tragedy about the ultimate impossibility of denying one’s own death, and the absurdity of trying to control the life that follows it.

The accomplished Sarah Polley, who has already played a woman coming to terms with impending doom in the film Don McKellar’s Last Night (1998), gives a sympathetic performance as Ann, and manages to convey a vulnerability that is hidden beneath a determined guise of normality. While Ann is the focus of every scene, thanks to a superb screenplay adapted by Coixet from Nanci Kincaid’s 1998 short story of the same name, even minor characters (like Ann’s saturnine doctor, played by Julian Richings) are made to seem like real people with their own problems and quirks, in a film that is full, appropriately enough, of other people’s lives.

Summary: A film about death and its impact on others that is refreshingly unsentimental, and with an ending that might leave you feeling either exhilarated or depressed (or even both) depending upon how you interpret it.

© Anton Bitel