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Oscar-nominated short has personal roots

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MONTREAL -- Yan England remembers seeing his grandfather slip under the shroud of Alzheimer's disease, the memories of the elderly man's rich life gradually fading from his embattled brain.

It shook the young man but the experience also provided the catalyst for his moving film Henry, which is in contention for the best short live-action film Oscar when Hollywood gathers to honour its best on Feb. 24.

Henry is the story of an elderly pianist who dreams of one last duet with his beloved violinist wife.

The film, which England sees as a tribute to his grandfather, shows the world through Henry's eyes as his failing mind wanders through his life and his family grapples with his deteriorating condition.

Although fictional, the film is loosely based on England's granddad.

"My grandfather lived this amazing life and he could remember every single detail," says the 30-year-old director, who often carries his grandfather's watch with him, especially at events involving the film.

"He loved history. We would sometimes sit down in his living room and he would tell me stories, about Italy, about Britain, about his time in Montreal."

The old man was born in Britain and served in its army intelligence service during the Second World War. He met the love of his life in Italy, and tried his hand as a film producer in that country. When that didn't work out, he brought his wife and two daughters to Canada and started all over again.

"He lived 10 lives in one," his grandson says.

Then came a day several years ago that England describes as "pivotal." He and his mother were having coffee with his grandfather, who was 92 at the time.

"All of a sudden, he looks at us and he's scared, anxious, nervous, and he asks us the question, 'Have I been a good man?' At the time, I became really emotional because I was so astounded to see that.

"How is it possible for a man who has lived such an amazing life, all of a sudden doesn't remember what happened? To ask that question means you don't know what happened in your life."

His grandfather was "a gentle man," even as he grew more frail and the shadow of a former self whom England still recalls with obvious love.

"He was a soldier, he was a man who would stand straight and face adversity and challenges and then toward the end of his life he was, yes, frail."

In the intervening years, England and his family would travel back and forth through the elderly man's memory, with him often mistaking them for other people.

"Sometimes I was his grandson, some other times I was a kid who he had been fighting during the Second World War," England said in an interview. "Other times I would be somebody else."

His grandfather died at the age of 96 five years ago. But Henry was born.

The energetic England, who has been acting in English and French since the age of eight in Canada and the U.S., financed Henry out of his own pocket.

The main role is deftly played by Gerard Poirier. The cast, which includes some well-known Quebec thespians such as Louise Laprade and Marie Tifo, worked free of charge and England is unreserved in his praise and gratitude of them.

The 21-minute film is touching but never maudlin in its execution and Poirier's performance as the 84-year-old pianist is often wrenching as he tries to make sense of the jumble in his mind.

While England's granddad was never a musician, he loved music. England himself plays piano and the saxophone and he wanted music to play a big role in Henry.

"I wanted music to be a sort of character in the film," he explains, noting that song is also known for stimulating memory.

"I wanted music to be Henry's reference and his guidance, what would guide him to the truth."

Family has always been a big part of England's life.

He remembers how supportive his parents were when, as an 18-year-old, he flipped a coin on whether he'd try his luck in New York or Los Angeles. He ended up going to both to learn his craft and work.

Now he also hosts a popular morning radio show in Montreal; his mother was visiting the radio station when the Oscar nominations were announced last month.

England learned he made the cut by looking at her iPad. He says it felt as if time was slowing down as he read the list of nominees, finally coming to his own name.

"Time stopped," he says, the emotion coming back to him.

"I was crying, hugged my family. It was the best moment of my life."

Since then, he's been juggling the pre-Oscar whirl with his acting and radio jobs. He went to a Hollywood luncheon earlier this week attended by the nominees and his eyes light up as he describes it as "surreal."

He reels off the names of the Hollywood powerhouses in attendance, like Robert De Niro and Steven Spielberg, and says he shook a lot of hands.

But what about networking?

"I don't think it was about making connections that time," he says, describing it as an incredible chance to talk to people passionate about their craft.

He smiles when he's asked what his grandfather would think of all the excitement.

"He loved movies so much, being a film producer in Italy," England says. "I hope he sees it from wherever he is and he's having a blast."

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 8, 2013 D6

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