Oscar winner Sarah Polley launched to the A-list in Uxbridge-filmed ‘Road to Avonlea’
Published March 23, 2023 at 5:21 pm
Sarah Polley, one of Canada’s great cinematic minds, won big at this year’s Academy Awards, taking home the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for her Pickering-filmed acclaimed drama Women Talking.
Long before taking Hollywood’s grandest stage, however, Polley first rose to the public consciousness in small-town Ontario through CBC’s Road to Avonlea TV series.
Polley’s acting career began when she was just four years old with a few appearances in film and on television in the late 1980s, such as the lead role in Terry Gilliam’s underappreciated absurdist masterpiece The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
The film was critically lauded but did not prove to be Polley’s breakout as it made only $8 million of its reportedly $46 million budget (which was nearly double the film’s initial $23 million estimate). Despite being a box office bomb, Munchausen received numerous award nominations including four Oscars and two Young Artist Awards for Polley.
After Munchausen, Polley, now 10 years old, secured what would be her breakout role: Sara Stanley in Road to Avonlea. The CBC series was based on the stories of Lucy Maud Montgomery, a Canadian literary legend for her Anne of Green Gables novel series.
The TV show did not directly adapt the Anne stories as they were based more heavily on the Stanley-focused The Story Girl and The Golden Road. However, the show borrowed supporting characters from Anne and the central setting of Avonlea itself since the Stanley stories took place in other areas of Prince Edward Island.
The TV series followed Stanley, a 10-year-old heiress from Montreal, sent to PEI in 1903 to live with her aunts when her father is sentenced to house arrest in an embezzlement scandal.
To build the early Twentieth Century town of Avonlea, the production turned to Uxbridge. The town is notable for its connection to Montgomery.
After spending most of her life in PEI, she moved to Uxbridge Township in 1911. She lived there in the Leaskdale manse until 1926 and wrote 11 of her 22 novels there. She hated the “ugly” manse, however, complaining it did not have a toilet.
However, Montgomery loved the scenic natural landscape of the area, making it the perfect place to adapt her stories. The town itself was first founded in 1806 and built up over the rest of the 19th Century.
As a result, the existing buildings with their Victorian Era architecture proved perfect stand-ins for the turn of the Twentieth Century Avonlea. To match the PEI’s distinctive iron-rich soil, the production even painted the town’s roads red.
Once aired, the series was an immediate smash hit for the CBC. It was soon picked up by the Disney Channel for distribution in the United States where it attracted a large following.
Polley herself was quickly catapulted into an international celebrity known as ‘Canada’s Sweetheart’ according to The Globe and Mail. The series drew critical acclaim throughout its seven-year run including four Emmy wins in 16 nominations, and 18 Junos.
Major performers were drawn to guest appearances on the show, including Christopher Lloyd (who won an Emmy for his guest appearance), silver screen legends Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, former Superman Christopher Reeve, comedy icon Eugene Levy, once Avenger and future Game of Thrones favourite Diana Rigg, and a young Ryan Gosling.
About two years into the show’s run, Polley, age 12, wore a peace sign to an award show in protest of the Gulf War against Disney’s wishes. This soured the actress’ relationship with the typically apolitical ‘House of Mouse.’ Polley left Road to Avonlea five years into the show but made a couple of guest appearances in later episodes.
She quickly outgrew the young Sara Stanley next appearing in CBC’s gritty urban teen drama Straight Up. At age 18, she returned to film in Atom Egoyan’s 1997 masterpiece The Sweet Hereafter, now commonly acclaimed as one of the greatest Canadian films of all time.
From there Polley quickly became an indie darling, starring in numerous acclaimed lower-budget films throughout the 2000s.
A notable exception to her indie streak was the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. The film is credited in part with revitalizing the Zombie genre which has flourished to the point of ubiquity over the last 20 years. Director Zack Snyder and writer James Gunn since grew to become powerhouse figures in Hollywood with both leading billion-dollar franchises, including two different universes of DC Comics adaptations.
During this period, Polley moved to writing and directing. She released her debut, the Canadian independent film Away from Her in 2006. The drama, about a married couple’s struggle when one develops Alzheimer’s, is based on the work of Canada’s first literary Nobel Laureate, Alice Munro.
The film was immediately acclaimed it swept the Canadian Genie Awards with seven wins among eight nominations. Polley received her first Oscar nomination for her screenplay while lead actress Julie Christie nabbed her fourth.
After this runaway success, Polley turned her attention to writing and directing full-time and has not acted since 2010. Following another drama Take This Waltz in 2011, Polley turned to her own life for a documentary.
She released the memoir film Stories We Tell in 2012. The documentary explores Polley’s own family and the revelation that the dad who raised her was not her biological father. On release the film was hailed in the festival circuit and now ranks among the greatest Canadian films according to the Toronto International Film Festival.
Next, Polley teamed with fellow-Ontario filmmaker Mary Harron (best known for directing the 2000 cult classic American Psycho) for her most ambitious project yet, Alias Grace.
Polley had long tried to adapt Margaret Atwood’s seminal novel about the eponymous servant’s murder of her employers while dealing with the rampant sexism, classism and anti-Irish xenophobia of the 19th Century Southern Ontario.
At age 17, Polley first approached Atwood to adapt the novel. However the pair agreed to wait until Polley was ready to take on the project, which was more than 20 years later. While initially begun as a film, the series soon evolved into a six-part CBC/Netflix production that was loved by the critics, even earning a 99 per cent approval rating from Rotten Tomatoes.
Next Polley directed the television series Hey Lady (2020) before taking on the writing and directing roles for Women Talking, the 2022 film based on the 2018 novel of the same name written by Miriam Toews and inspired by atrocities that occurred at the Manitoba Colony, a remote and isolated Mennonite community in Bolivia.
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