Not A Review Of “Away From Her”Release Date: May 4th, 2007
Director and Screenplay: Sarah Polley
I think I came across this movie first while reading a New York Times article about upcoming movies. It was not just the theme of the movie, but also who was behind it that caught my attention. The movie is directed by the Canadian actress Sarah Polley, who I first saw in Atom Egoyan’s critically acclaimed “The Sweet Hereafter” and I was amazed at her abilities as an actor. She is not yet 29 and this is her maiden directorial feature film and it is a very impressive debut indeed. I saw this movie this past weekend at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute cinema and I have to say the movie stayed with me for a long time after I had left the theater.
The story is based on Alice Munro’s short story The Bear Came Over the Mountain, which appeared in the New Yorker. Sarah found out about the story while returning from a film shoot in
The story in a nutshell..
If any of you have read about this movie, you may sometimes hear something akin to the term.. “sad” or “emotionally wrenching” thrown at it. It is certainly that but to think about the movie in simply those terms almost reduces it to one of those made for TV movie specials that are dealing with a debilitating disease. Not to knock any of those movies, but there are those and then there is “Away from her”.
It is a very intimate look at a couple Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie) in a long loving marriage that often seems calm through most of its 44 years. I use the term often seem calm for there are hints, at events from the past and the references to those are restrained, hinting at things being unlike a fairy tale.
The movie deals with the effects on both the protagonists when Fiona’s memory and her notion of herself as a person slowly starts to slip away after she is afflicted with Alzheimer’s. The two main characters are ably assisted by Michael Murphy in the role of a mostly mute fellow Alzheimer’s patient(Aubrey) that Fiona’s character bonds with and the amazing Olympia Dukakis who plays his wife Marian.
Alzheimer’s is a rare disease in the sense that it slowly takes away the people it afflicts, right in front of the eyes of their loved ones. Can you imagine entire lives being slowly but steadily erased lives that include entire chronicles of one’s family and friends? This is not an easy task for a director to handle and Sarah Polley does it very skillfully assisted by some very fine measured performances.
To me this was a movie about love, and how the nature of love changes if at all especially after decades have gone by. What if there are tribulations from the past under the surface, yet there are bonds as well, and how do they endure under pressures that would cause most of us to crumble if not fall apart. The movie examines love and its limitations and the notion of loyalty and how it gets redefined. It does so in a poignant, candid, intelligent and a heart breaking manner. The movie makes us think and it stays with us and there lies its success (in my opinion).
This film has some lovely background music and beautiful, snowy desolate locations from
I loved the literary references (W. H. Auden’s Letters from
We see small signs of Fiona’s gradual slipping away from the opening moments when while doing dishes, Fiona puts the washed pan in to the freezer, to moments of amazing lucidity, when during a walk through the Brant conservation area, she chances upon some skunk lillies and can recall details about them that make us and Grant wonder about her state.
I thought Gordon Pinsent's performance as Grant was restrained and understatedly brilliant. He is 77 and does not look that age at all. The gorgeous Julie Christie at 66 looks achingly beautiful and delivers a marvelous performance that is a mix of hope, fear, fragility and a sense of humor and I hope is remembered come award time. Olympia Dukakis’s Marian is a great portrayal of a spouse who has given up on the notion that there could be happiness or romance for her but yet she and Grant manage to find each other to form a relationship. The nature of this like some other things are left for us to interpret. If this was the filmmakers intent I like it, for rarely are things in life white and black.
The scenes between Grant and Marian as they go from their initial frostiness to their shared intimacy as their respective spouses fade away due to the disease are touching to watch. It is against this backdrop that we see the increasing affections between Fiona and Marian’s husband Aubrey at the nursing home which show the insularity of their world as their ties to their loved ones slip away.
Going back to Grant’s performance, there are scenes that absolutely blow you away. It is sort of hinted that Grant has been less than perfect as a husband and you watch him struggle as he tries to be the husband he has not been. Is his attempt at trying to bring Aubrey back to the nursing home to help Fiona deal with her depression that results from their separation (possibly as Marian cannot afford to keep him there anymore) or a truly selfless love knowing that it will not be returned?
The scene where Grant returns to the nursing home after Fiona is first admitted after a mandatory 30 day separation is emotional to watch, as he brings her flowers and she seems to have forgotten who he is. The transformation in him is conveyed very well by his eyes and his body language and not much has to be said by the actor.
The line from Fiona “Must all seem strange to you, but you’ll be surprised how soon you will get used to it” at the end of that encounter and other things in the movie made me wonder if she was having revenge on Grant for his indiscretion? I liked how there was ambiguity around this whole issue as well as the ending of the movie when Grant and Fiona hug each other, to me it almost seemed like she was back albeit briefly but she was back to who she was. It made me wonder about what had happened up to that point, and their lies the heart of this story, that there are no easy answers in this situation, this reality that is the world of those affected by this disease is just inescapable.
While reading up some more related material for this post, I came across this quote from the director Sarah Polley that I leave you with..
“we care much more about the first year or two of a relationship than we do about what happens as life happens — how people then find each other and how their love is expressed" as they grow older.”
This for me is easily this year's best film so far.