Dir: Isabel Coixet. Spain-Canada. 2003. 106 mins.

My Life Without Me is Love Story with attitude. Sarah Polley - who turns in one of those performances that shift an acting career into a higher gear - even looks a little bit like Ali McGraw. But while audiences should go armed with a supply of handkerchiefs, this Spanish-Canadian co-production by Things I Never Told You director Isabel Coixet, which tells the story of a 24-year-old woman who is dying of cancer, is more muscular than mawkish. Executive produced by Pedro Almodovar, it is very much in the intelligent melodrama genre of the Spanish master's last two films. And My Life Without Me is certainly hot: just before its Berlinale competition screening, following sales to a number of territories including Japan and Scandinavia, the film was snapped up by Sony Pictures Classics for the US and Tobis for Germany; other deals are certain to follow. And in Polley - who holds back as much as she lets out - Sony Pictures Classics have got themselves a strong early contender for the 2004 Oscars.

Though few commercially-viable films have dwelt so insistently on death, My Life Without Me is by no means depressing. The old adage about tragedy being life-enhancing holds true not only for the audience, but for the main character as well. Ann is a fairly ordinary 24- year-old Canadian woman with two small daughters and a loving husband. Though they live in a mobile home in her mother's backyard, there is nothing dysfunctional about this family unit (the same cannot be said for the mother - a washed-up blonde played by Deborah Harry with just the right amount of bitter cynicism). One day, Ann falls prey to that old Hollywood stand-by: doctors diagnose a tumour, and give her only has a couple of months to live. She decides to conceal the truth from her family for as long as she can, and spend the time that remains preparing them for life without her by finding her husband a new wife, and by making tapes for her daughters' birthdays, one a year until they are 18. A mother at 17, and married to the only man she has ever kissed, Ann also decides to take a lover before she shuffles off.

It sounds like a recipe for an over-the-top weepie; but the director creates a series of schmaltz-barriers. The film ends early, rather than following Ann through to the end. The lover (an intense, poetic introvert played by Mark Ruffalo, who chooses his roles well) is a good touch: it makes Ann less of a saint. And Jean Claude Larrieu's photography has a nicely rough, honest edge: it is made up of extreme close-ups, off-centre framing and plenty of driving Vancouver rain, although there is one oddly amateurish day-for-night sequence. Sound recording follows the same line: miked for realism to include background hiss and clatter, the dialogue comes across a little muddy at times. Unlike the music - a mix of elegiac modern-classical strings and vintage torch songs (including Italian and Spanish classics, and the Beach Boys sung by a school choir) - which provides a lucid accompaniment to the emotional squeeze.

The only real weak point are two minor characters: Ann's diet-obsessed cleaner colleague (Plummer) adds little depth to the endeavour, while Maria de Madeiros's braided disco-dancing hairdresser is entirely irrelevant. But it's Ann that the script, and the camera, and the audience, keep returning to.

Prod co: El Deseo
Co prod:
Milestone Productions
Int'l sales:
Focus Features International
Exec prods:
Pedro Almodovar, Agustin Almodovar, Ogden Gavansk
Prods: Esther Garcia, Gordon McLennan
Isabel Coixet, based on the story Pretending The Bed Is A Raft by Nanci Kincaid
Jean Claude Larrieu
Prod des:
Carol Lavallee
Lisa Jane Robison
Alfonso de Vilallonga
Main cast:
Sarah Polley, Amanda Plummer, Scott Speedman, Leonor Watling, Deborah Harry, Maria de Medeiros