This treatment of a marriage falling under the disrupting effects of memory loss due to the wasting disease known as Alzheimer's is, more than anything, an homage to devotion. It comes from the pen of first-time feature screenwriter and director, Canadian actress Sarah Polley, who plays no part in front of the lens. Her screenplay is an adaptation from author Alice Munro's short story, "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," about a couple coming to grips with the particular effects of memory loss on their 50-year very close relationship.
As it becomes more evident and denial is no longer a viable option for these two intelligent people, Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie) face the prospect of her being committed to an institution. Of the two, Fiona, the victim, is the one who's clearest on this point, while Grant is willing to put it off and take care of her at home. Aggravating that preference is the policy of the care facility that he will not be permitted to visit her for the first 30 days, a period for her to "settle in" to her new surroundings and fellow patients as explained by company witch (Wendy Crewson) with all due officiousness.
His concern over this proves prescient when the month is over. He goes for his first visit with flowers in hand and joy in his heart, eager to make up for the lost time away from his wife. But what he discovers freezes him. Fiona not only doesn't remember who he is, but she has taken up with a new "friend," Aubrey (Michael Murphy), a recalcitrant man who has become much more socially cooperative under the attention she lavishes on him.
The suspicion is that this disconnection with Grant is a possibly not conciously-intended punishment for a marital infraction that occurred years before and which Fiona has never forgiven. Be that as it may, the movie concentrates on the pain of adapting to new circumstances in the case of a thoroughly devoted husband.
The subject matter in the film was just too painful for the Grouchmate to consider so I decided to watched this one at 5:00 in the morning with my headphones on and coffee cup in hand. I have discovered that this time period is the best for me to reflect, my mind being fresh and uncluttered, and the quiet being free from distraction. A good thing, too, because "Away From Her" is the type of movie that deals with the reality of aging and the certainty of loss that accompanies end of life, and sometimes much earlier. The insidious disease of Alzheimer's can strike at the earliest of ages, sometimes in the 40's, but many times in the mid to late 50's as well. That fact has caused me to reflect on my own failing memory and to consider the neglect of my own bodily maintenance. But enough of this rambling...on to the movie itself.
There are fine performances all around, with sometimes subtle turns of character by the actors mentioned above as well as some of the minor players involved, such as the actress playing a very helpful and supportive care giver whose name and picture I cannot seem to remember (Uh oh!). Julie Christie has been awarded a Golden Globe for her performance, very well deserved, in my opinion.
The featured couple, Grant and Fiona Anderson, are what I would call a "PBS" (Public Broadcasting Service) couple, he a retired college professor, she an inveterate reader and world student, childless due to a medical problem, living comfortably in a large and comfortable home on the outskirts of a cosmopolitan area. Money does not seem to be a problem for them while they spend their time together cross country skiing and reading books together that sound esoteric and boring.
As Fiona's problem manifests itself they both realize that they have to plan ahead for the inevitable institutionalizing of Fiona, so they logically discuss and plan for this and even choose the facility that Fiona will spend the rest of her life. They even visit the facility together and work out the details with the administration. Very educated, very logical and almost cold bloodedly.
For my part, I found them to be unlikable since I deal with the public in my day job and see these people all the time. But there is one thing about Grant and Fiona that is usually true for these types, and that is that trouble is usually just under the surface of their lives but is covered with a false urbanity and panache that "regular" people just cannot afford.
As a direct contrast we meet the plain speaking Marian (Dukakis) whose husband Aubrey has been committed to the same institution as has Fiona. After the angst and cold blooded stuffiness of the Anderson's, Marians forthrightness seems like a breath of fresh air. She deals in reality and freely admits her fears and misgivings without the pseudo intellectual facade. She even drinks coffee instead of tea, and (GASP!) smokes cigarettes!
But the ultimate strength of this movie lies in the emotions that struggle to emerge. Grant, who seems to be emotionally repressed, is the central figure involved and the one whose character is fully explored. And, being a man, I can sympathize with him a little as he deals with his own shortcomings and his past sins.
What is particularly galling for him is that although Alzheimer's patients may lose their short term memories it is the long term ones that they seem to retain the longest, and THOSE are the ones that pain Grant the most! Although Grant and Fiona had come to a place of accommodation with their troubled past relationship, Grant rightly fears that the past sins will be all that Fiona remembers of him in the future.
If you are looking for a film that will make you feel chirpy then "Away From Her" is not a good choice, but if you are ready to spend some time in reflection then, please, rent this fine movie! And be sure to watch the extra features on the DVD, including the deleted scenes. It's all good!
My popcorn rating: