Film Review by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
Fiona (Julie Christie) and Grant (Gordon Pinsent) have been married for 44 years and live in an isolated farm house in Ontario, Canada. They enjoy cross-country skiing and sex. But their life together in love is threatened by the looming clouds of Alzheimer’s disease. One evening Fiona puts the frying pan away in the refrigerator. At a dinner with friends, she reaches for a bottle but can’t remember the word wine. Later, she says: “I think I’m beginning to disappear.” Grant wants to believe that these memory lapses are a normal part of the aging process but after Fiona loses track of where she is while cross-country skiing by herself, she decides it is time for her to enter Meadowlake, a residence facility for Alzheimer patients.
Madeleine (Wendy Crewson) is the efficient and always cheerful administrator of this fairly new facility which houses patients in their own rooms on the first floor and treats patients who have “lost it” on the dreaded second floor. Grant is upset when he learns that he cannot visit Fiona for her first month at Meadowlake since she will need that period to adjust on her own to the place, the staff, and the other patients. During this transition time, she becomes very attached to Aubrey (Michael Murphy), a wheelchair-bound patient who doesn’t talk and welcomes the attention she lavishes upon him. When Grant is finally allowed to visit, he discovers that Fiona is not interested in spending any time with him; she may or may not remember who he is.
Kristy (Kristen Thomson), the head nurse at Meadowlake, senses Grant’s estrangement and feelings of jealousy. When he turns to her for counsel, she shares her assessment that men usually have rosier memories of their marriages than the women do. He knows she’s right. Just before entering the facility, Fiona reminded him of something she does want to forget — the pain she felt years ago when as a university professor of mythology he had affairs with younger women. Now he is the one who is angry and jealous as he waits for her to leave Aubrey long enough so he can talk to her. Of her new friend, she says, “He doesn’t confuse me at all.” It is a poignant moment in which Grant realizes that his only choice in the name of love is to let go and not be so attached to Fiona.
In one of the best films of 2007, writer and director Sarah Polley has creatively adapted for the screen Canadian author Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” Julie Christie gives an Academy Award-caliber performance, and the rest of the cast is also superb. This subtle and poignant drama deals with the nature of love in a long-lasting marriage and the important role memory plays in our lives. It also explores the many ramifications of dementia, of which Alzheimer’s is the most common form. Lewis Thomas has called it “the disease of the century . . . the worst of all diseases, not just for what it does to the patient, but for its devastating effects on family and friends.” Alzheimer’s sufferers unlearn even the simplest skills; eventually they become totally incapable of caring for themselves. With no known cure or preventive treatment, the disease is always fatal.
In the marriage ceremony, couples make a lifetime commitment to each other. Although most of them expect to honor that promise, almost half of them will split before 15 years are over. Away From Her is about the bonds that hold a couple together even when a couple faces challenges that test every ounce of their caring and commitment to each other. Marian (Olympia Dukakis), Aubrey’s wife, provides Grant with the key to dealing with Fiona. What happens is not something he expects or makes sense of afterwards. But it offers him a chance to repair his relationship with Fiona and verify his love for her.
Special DVD features include an audio commentary by Julie Christie and deleted scenes with an audio commentary by director Sarah Poley.