Sarah Polley wrote and directed Away From Her, the Genie Award-winning Canadian film which debuted at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie is based on a short story by Alice Munro entitled The Bear Came Over the Mountain.
Shot in Hamilton, Ontario, Away From Her picked up an Oscar nomination for the film’s star, the wonderful Julie Christie. The picture was also greeted with enthusiasm from critics, as the greatly positive reviews ranked it among the best films of the year (2007, according to its broader release date) on many top lists. Roger Ebert had the film ranked as his sixth best of the year and Dana Stevens from Slate ranked it as the second best.
Away From Her stars Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent as Grant. Grant is married to Fiona (Julie Christie). Grant and Fiona have been married for over 44 years and have grown old together. They are very much in love and this is evidenced in the way the couple live with one another. Grant has never been away from Fiona for even one day. As time passes, Fiona begins to lose her memory and it becomes sadly obvious that she is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Fiona and Grant have a very intelligent approach to life and this approach leads Fiona to be admitted to a nursing home before her symptoms get much worse.
One of the rules at the nursing home pertains to a so-called adjustment period in which the newly admitted patient must not have any visitors for 30 days in order to adjust to his or her new surroundings. Grant loathes the rule, but Fiona insists that it will be okay and admits herself to the nursing home. When the 30-day period is over, Grant eagerly visits the home and Fiona. To his distress, he discovers that she has all but forgotten him and has turned her affections to Aubrey (Michael Murphy), a mute cripple. Grant continues to visit Fiona, despite her lack of understanding as to his role and her attachment to Aubrey. As time passes, Grant must make a choice between his wife’s happiness and the traditional roles of marriage.
Away From Her is an incredibly moving film. Its power lies in the strong performances from Christie and Pinsent, the latter of whom also deserved an Oscar nomination for his heartrending portrayal of a man on his own suffering with the realities of his wife’s condition and his immense love for her. Christie is excellent and all of the buzz about her performance in the film is dead on. She acts with control and precision, limiting herself and straying from the standard “tug at the heartstrings” stuff of movie mythology. Instead, her portrayal of Fiona and her suffering with losing her memory, her mind, and her love is very poignant and real.
Polley’s direction is impeccable. Polley has directed some shorts and a small bit of television before, but she is primarily thought of as an actress. At just 29, one can expect great things from her. Polley’s direction is simplistic and sets her film up in bright focus, using the winter and the crunch of the snow as an elegant backdrop. The strong sunlight infuses almost every frame, as characters walk down halls through the nursing home or through the snow near Fiona and Grant’s cottage. I can’t recall a single scene that lingers in its own darkness, which is a purposeful approach that strays away from the common notion of setting such a dismal tale in darkness.
Away From Her tackles Alzheimer’s disease and aging with a grace that is rarely seen. While other films tackle the condition and draw it in as a part of a greater story, as in the romance of The Notebook, Polley’s film functions as an observation of the disease and a broader look at the human condition. It looks boldly and clearly at the fallout of Alzheimer’s and of the aging process. It looks at the suffering involved with putting a loved one in a nursing home, examining carefully the distance and the confusion that is so often involved with aging and life’s decisions.
The pain here comes from the fact that death almost seems to be merciful in the case of Fiona and Grant. With no memory of her love for Grant, Fiona still seems happy and well-adjusted to her new existence in the nursing home. Here, it is Grant who really suffers. In the “outside world,” it is Grant who is “away from her” and Grant who doesn’t know what to do. It is Grant who needs mercy and it is Grant who must watch idly as his wife moves on with her life. Is she getting some form of revenge for past transgressions? Is it all a game? The questions wrack his mind, drive him insane, and fills him with fear and remorse.
Away From Her is a film that resonates with gentleness, compassion, and admiration for its characters and for the sufferers of Alzheimer’s and general adventurers on the road of age. It treats the elderly and those with memory loss with respect instead of reducing their condition to a sideshow or a caustic backdrop. With Polley’s incredibly moving and heartbreaking film, the characters matter and their existence is looked upon with affection, sorrow, and a small glimmer of weakening hope.