AWAY FROM HER
Running Time 110 minutes
Written and Directed by Sarah Polley
Starring Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent
The subject of aging, illness and letting go are not mainstream subjects for commercial films, but Away From Her, which marks the feature-film directing debut of popular Canadian actress Sarah Polley, is a devastatingly honest and understated new work that addresses all three issues with admirable maturity and a refreshing absence of sentimentality. Much of the praise must be reserved for the sublime Julie Christie, who has moved into middle age with subtle self-assurance and unretouched natural beauty, as a woman disappearing inside the unforgiving prison of Alzheimer’s disease, and Gordon Pinsent as the anguished husband who watches her slip away. Fiona and Grant are people who have loved each other, hated each other and learned to live with each other’s faults and virtues until they have established a 44-year marriage rooted in romance and solidarity. When all of that disintegrates like cigarette smoke, the husband is lost and hurt and confused about how they came to this defining detour in the road. It is to the everlasting credit of Ms. Polley that she draws the audience into their lives without being manipulative or sentimental. Her movie just states the facts, and the actors get under your skin, welcoming you to the material without handing you a hankie.
Away From Her is based on an Alice Munro short story called “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” a terrific piece of writing so explicit and linear that too much tinkering and “opening up” for film would have ruined its delicacy. Most of the work was already done, and luckily for us all, Ms. Polley has respected it enough to let it speak for itself. That trust pays off. The film is not only the story of a great romance fading and a beautiful woman disintegrating, but also the tragedy of a caregiver watching the foundation of his world eroding. Ms. Christie shows the spark in Fiona’s eyes slowly dimming to gray. Wandering aimlessly from room to room, trying to remember what she’s looking for, putting away the saucepan in the freezer instead of the cupboard, she laughs off her slips. But as the gaps grow more frequent and her mind deteriorates, she fears saddling her husband with the burden of her declining health, eventually overruling Grant’s protests and making the quiet decision to enter a rest home. While one strand of the narrative follows Fiona’s peaceful transition from strong, independent wife to docile, childlike patient, a second thread follows Grant’s tortured resignation to the trauma of separation after four decades together and his determination to make as happy a homestretch for Fiona as possible. He feels guilty about all of the hurts, real and imagined, he might have caused in the past, and his own mental state is worsened by the cruel rules of Fiona’s new residence, which prohibit visits for a lengthy period of adjustment. One moving moment among many occurs after the first month-long orientation separation, when Grant watches through a palm and sees Fiona’s attentions drift to another patient named Aubrey (Michael Murphy). Sitting devotedly at the side of her mute and wheelchair-bound new friend, Fiona sees Grant and doesn’t even seem to know him. Another occurs after Aubrey’s release plunges Fiona into a pit of depression, when Grant bravely (but vainly) tries to persuade Aubrey’s own frank, no-nonsense wife (Olympia Dukakis) to return him to the institution. There is great potential for a cascading tearjerker here, but the impeccable actors and Ms. Polley’s smartly adapted script keep it tightly bottled. The emotional force remains, as well as the underlying turbulence in Alice Munro’s keenly calibrated writing, and Ms. Polley also has a keen ear and eye for the little humiliations of Alzheimer clinics, their coldly detached administrators, and the glum ritual of family visitation. The luminous and vivid face of Julie Christie, losing focus as it gazes across vast distances, is both openly expressive and internally dark, her eyes registering the unknown landscape that is creeping up, taking over and melting her life away. Never has the theme “Nothing lasts forever” been so truthfully wrenching. Dealing with the slippery slopes between memory and forgetting, guilt and freedom, Away From Her has even more to do with compassion, empathy and enduring love. It’s inescapably sad—a heartbreaking and memorable cinematic experience.