Director: Sarah Polley
Coming to terms with something as complicated and cruel as Alzheimer’s Disease requires subtlety and patience. In attempting to show the struggle to cope with said disease, Sarah Polley’s directorial debut Away From Her is suitably subtle and pleasantly patient, traits the film shares with its main character Grant (Gordon Pinsent), a retired university professor who watches as his wife Fiona (Julie Christie) slowly regresses into a horribly mundane senility.
As we are often told, it’s the little things in life that mean the most. In the opening scene, after enjoying a pleasant dinner together, Grant and Fiona wash the dishes when Fiona nonchalantly puts a frying pan away in the freezer. Away From Her has many moments like this, but they’re never exploitative; as in reality, they’re just tell-tale signs of a slowly crumbling mind. Polley’s script, adapted from Alice Munro’s short story ‘The Bear Came Over The Mountain’, is a beautiful balance of a clear depiction of the effects of Alzheimer’s, coupled with a great deal of restraint. Fiona takes the decision to check into a respite centre, Meadowcare, whilst Grant is hesitant to let her go. Away From Her is a study not only of the effect of Alzheimer’s on the person who has it, but also on their loved ones. Fiona begins to forget Grant, and this is compounded by the relationship she strikes up with fellow patient Aubrey (Michael Murphy). Christie is the focus of much of the film’s plaudits; her transformation from feisty-at-fifty to forgetting her own husband is heartbreaking. However, her performance would be for naught without Gordon Pinsent’s touching turn as the forgotten spouse. Getting a raw deal, yet unable to be angry and incapable of doing anything but loving his wife, Pinsent is marvellous, and his scenes with Christie verge on devestating. As Fiona and Michael grow closer, Grant seeks help from Michael’s wife Marian (a embittered Olympia Dukakis) in an effort to do what his wife has done: forget.
As a director, Polley makes a remarkable debut. She shoots without fuss, and uses natural bright light to create stunning vistas in the film’s Canadian setting. Her writing matches her directorial ability, matching light touches of humour with the bitterness of the situation. Plenty of people won’t have the patience for it, but Away From Her isn’t designed for them. Rich in emotion and passion, this one’s for the grown-ups. Before checking into the rest home, Fiona says, “All we can aspire to in this situation is a little bit of grace.” Away From Her is as graceful and elegant a treatment of illness on film as one can experience.