AWAY FROM HER
Canada, 2007, 110 minutes, Colour.
Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent, Olympia Dukakis, Michael Murphy, Wendy Crewson, Kristen Thomson.
Directed by Sarah Polley.
Would you want to see a film about Alzheimer’s Disease, its onset and the effect on a woman who is not particularly old, seems fully alive, a woman of charm and vivacity? If the answer is yes, then this is a film you should see. If the answer is no, then this review would suggest reconsidering the decision.
One of the outstanding features of Away from Her is that it has been made by a young woman.
Canadian actress, Sarah Polley (who has been in films since she was a girl: The Sweet Hereafter, The Claim) has adapted a short story by Alice Munro, The Bear Came Over the Mountain. The screenplay shows a maturity and insight into old age which are quite striking considering that Sarah Polley was in her early and mid-twenties when she wrote and directed the film.
It is a Canadian film but the producers have scored a coup by enticing Julie Christie across the Atlantic to play the central role of Fiona. The story focuses on a couple in their sixties. He has been a professor, now retired, who has lived an active life and may not have always been faithful to his wife. But, she is loving and forgiving, reminding him that unlike other husbands at the university, he never left here.
She has stayed at home. Now, her memory is beginning to fade. We see it in the little details in the house, while she is cooking or in lapses in conversation with guests at table. The significant thing is that she is quite aware of what is happening to her. She accepts the oncoming of Alzheimer’s. She calmly decides to enter a nursing home and tries to persuade her husband that this is for the best.
Julie Christie has often been described as radiant on screen. This film comes more than forty years after her Oscar-winning performance in Darling, after Doctor Zhivago and Far from the Madding Crowd. She is most definitely radiant here, persuasive as a woman who accepts what is happening to her and what the consequences will be. It is a beautiful performance.
Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent is her husband. He finds it very difficult to accept his wife’s situation. As a concession, he agrees to accompany her to a residence where she could stay for a month as a tryout. The director (Wendy Crewson) is business-like with efficient charm. A nurse on staff is far more sympathetic and helpful. At the end of the month, Fiona opts to stay.
This is where the meaning of the title comes in. The film is poignant in presenting how much loss there is for the spouse who has to relinquish care of the Alzheimer’s sufferer and watch, almost helpless, as the partner of so many years drifts away. This is especially hard as the spouse visits the home on an almost daily basis, finds that his wife vaguely recognises him but is far more occupied in tending to a wheelchair bound patient with whom she forms an attachment (Michael Murphy).
The film also gives us another angle on this situation as the husband goes to visit the long-suffering wife of the wheelchair patient (Olympia Dukakis). He finds that she has her own problems in being ‘away from him’. She also resents Fiona’s interference and wants to withdraw her husband. However, the two form an alliance and a sexual liaison in a form of desperation.
However, the film is one of empathy and hope – it offers some glimpses of recognition and some declarations of love. This is an admirable film on a difficult contemporary reality.
1. The film based on a short story, ‘The Bear Came Over The Mountain’? This title?
2. Sarah Polley and her work, as an actress, writer, director? Her age, adapting the short story, the issues of old age and Alzheimer’s?
3. The Canadian settings, the roads, snow, homes, institutions? Attention to detail? The musical score, songs?
4. The framework: Grant and his driving to see Marian, the different memories, Aubrey and his concern? Then the continuation of the narrative?
5. Alzheimer’s Disease, audience knowledge of it, fears? Sympathies, illness, explanations? The analysis of the brain and its functioning, spasmodic turns? “Progress of the disease”? The texts read? Audience empathy for the characters?
6. Julie Christie as Fiona, her grace and presence? Her age? As a girl image, marrying, young, the forty-four years with Grant, Grant’s students, his infidelities, Veronica and her suicide and its effect? His staying with her? While others abandoned their wives? The Iceland background, Auden’s poems, her never having been there? The memories of the house, twenty years? Walking in the forest? The skiing? Never a month apart?
7. Fiona and her illness, her awareness, reading about the disease, her making the decision? Its manifestations, in the skiing, in the forest and lost, wandering, on the bridge and Grant collecting her? The meal and the visitors and the loss of memory? Her conversations, sense of time? Grant’s visit to the institution, her going, talking on the way, saying it was time, liking her room, making love with Grant and then telling him to go, sending down the note?
8. Her settling in, her meeting with Aubrey, care for him, playing cards, wheeling him around, watching television? Her attachment to him? His sketching her? Grant watching, feeling helpless? She not knowing him (or punishing him – with reason)? His giving her the books and her appreciation?
9. Grant, his grief, the title of the film? Away from Fiona? The past, the twenty years of fidelity, the happy memories, the disease and his reading about it, his concern? Taking the tour, Madeleine and her cheeriness? Meeting Kristy, talking with her? The decision to go, his unwillingness, Fiona’s strength of character, taking her, waiting, the note for him to go, the passing of the month, talking with Kristy, getting her advice, the visits, seeing Aubrey, her comments that Grant was persistent? Watching, the anguish? The response of Madeleine, of Kristy?
10. The decision to go to Marian, talking to her, explaining himself, the proposal about Aubrey going back to the institution? Marian listening, telling her story, calling him a jerk? Phoning, inviting him out, the dance, their driving together, the talk, the sexual encounter? The effect on each?
11. Marian and Aubrey, owning the house, the kids not visiting, taking him to the institution, her being critical of Fiona and her attachment, bringing him home, his watching the television, the sports channel? The financial situation, the reaction to Grant’s proposal? The dance, the drive? The aftermath – and Aubrey’s visit?
12. Madeleine and her efficiency, the conveniences for the residents, everything well planned, light, games, occupations? Families visiting, meals together? The life of the residents, the range of people, the manifestations of the disease, some chatting, some cheeky, the sexual background and people’s advances? The women? The deaf mother and her daughter – and then her isolation? The staff?
13. Kristy, her hard work, sympathy, available to Grant, the explanations, her own story, her husband and children, getting up and going? Discussing what Fiona had to forgive Grant?
14. Fiona’s deterioration, the issue of the zimmer, being confined to bed, not wanting to walk? Her visit to her home, saying the house was well cared for by those who lived there? Wanting to get back? The transferring to the first floor – and progress?
15. Grant’s visit, finding her reading the books, her expression of love for him, that he never left her when he could have? A final seen of deep love?
16. Themes of age, separation of spouses, loneliness, growing illness, having to deal and cope? A sensitive film?