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Northern composure

Another Canadian film-maker keeps clear of Hollywood.

The Canadian actress Sarah Polley grew up in films by the great Canadian director Atom Egoyan, playing sad, wise children: the babysitter in Exotica, the bus-crash survivor in The Sweet Hereafter. They're mere kids carrying the weight of the world. Polley is 28 now, but there is still the same kind of seriousness about her, a seriousness that seems at odds with some of the US films she has appeared in (Go, the Dawn of the Dead remake), and which would have been completely wrong for one that she wisely pulled out of: Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous.

The Almost Famous story says a lot about Polley. Crowe cast her as Penny Lane, the "band aid". So why did she quit?

"I think it wasn't the kind of film I wanted to be involved in at that point in my life," she says, by phone from Toronto. "I wasn't interested in a role that was going to garner that much attention. It was clear that whoever played that role was going to be groomed to be a starlet and it was just not what I saw for myself and it wasn't a life that I thought I could cope with. It was definitely a survival mechanism and a self-preserving measure and I'm really glad that I did it."

A curious aspect of this story is that Brad Pitt, originally cast as the enigmatic Stillwater guitarist, then quit in response (the parts went to Kate Hudson and Billy Crudup). What did Polley make of this? Was it weird, flattering? "I don't know. I don't really remember thinking that much about it."

She's now a film director and like the best Canadian directors - Egoyan, David Cronenberg, Denys Arcand, Guy Maddin - she's decidedly un-Hollywood. Her compassionate and intelligent first film, Away from Her, is an adaptation of fellow Canadian Alice Munro's short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" (read it online at the New Yorker archive), with non-Canadian Julie Christie giving a devastating performance as Fiona, who is struck by Alzheimer's. Fiona is strong, proud, intelligent - she has "the spark of life", as Munro puts it. When Polley read the Munro story - "I couldn't stop crying" - she thought immediately of Christie (the two had just acted together in The Secret Life of Words).

The film's tricky structure - flashbacks, shifting points of view - is there in the original story, but it also seems reminiscent of Egoyan's films, which deal with memory and loss and sorrow in similar ways. Polley agrees that there's probably an influence. "I have learnt a lot from him," she says, "and I think he's made a huge impact on me." But the driving force of it, she emphasises, is her "wise and incredibly perceptive" star: "In large part, I wanted to make the film to see Julie play this part."

Glenn Standring's vampire movie Perfect Creature was shot back in 2004 around the heritage quarters of Dunedin and Oamaru - handy settings for this Victorian-gothic fantasy - with a big international budget, two British stars (Dougray Scott and Saffron Burrows) and expectations of offshore success. Three years later, it's gone straight to DVD overseas and had local release dates postponed so that it doesn't have to compete with newer, cheaper New Zealand movies.

But it's not as bad as all that suggests: ambitious, sometimes dazzling, Creature is set within a parallel version of colonial New Zealand where vampires live as a kind of mystical order, supported and worshipped by common humanity. Cinematographer Leon Narbey and production designer Philip Ivey bring this dirty, crowded, squalid slum-city -- known as "Jamestown" - vividly to life. The problems come in a storyline that's murky to the point of incoherence: vampire Silus (Scott at his most lugubrious) must hunt his rogue blood-drinking brother (Leo Gregory), but Standring also wants to cram in allusions to alchemy and genetic modification, influenza outbreaks and religion as social control, while also finding room for some flatfoots who could have wandered in from a 40s cop movie.