Away From Her is a modest drama about an elderly Canadian couple coping with the onslaught of Alzheimer's. This topic could have resulted in something as sloppy and sentimental as a Lifetime (or maybe Hallmark) movie, or it could have been as severe as an Ingmar Bergman chamber piece. It is neither. In fact, it's an entirely unexpected triumph.
The film marks the directorial debut of Canadian actress Sarah Polley, who also adapted the script from an Alice Munro short story. I imagine most readers will remember Polley best as the female lead in the recent Dawn of the Dead remake or perhaps opposite Katie Holmes in the teen noir Go, but, for me, she will always be the babysitting survivor from Atom Egoyan's devastating The Sweet Hereafter. The utter lack of autobiography in this debut project is impressive enough, but the combination of warmth and meticulous, unflinching austerity is reminiscent of The Sweet Hereafter. It immediately marks Polley as a potentially major filmmaker.
Away From Her opens in a rural Ontario cottage, where retired professor Grant Andersson (Gordon Pinsent) and his wife Fiona (Julie Christie) live after more than 40 years of marriage, spending their time cross-country skiing and reading to each other. Grant is slightly rattled by early signs of Fiona's mental deterioration, such as putting a frying pan in the freezer after washing dishes. But it's another thing entirely when Fiona wanders off during a solo skiing sojourn and is found, hours later, freezing by the side of the road.
The couple read up on the early stages of Alzheimer's, and the enormous demands imposed on the unaffected spouse as primary caregiver ("sounds like a regular marriage," Fiona jokes). Then Fiona, during a good stretch, makes the decision, against Grant's pained opposition, that she should be put in a high-end nursing home.
Fiona meets her fate with an acceptance that borders on grace, but Grant's journey is more difficult. Forced to leave Fiona in the institution for a month-long acclimation period before he's allowed to visit, when they're reunited, he finds a woman who no longer seems to recognize him.
Fiona's lucidity comes and goes. (In a gratuitous but utterly heartbreaking moment, Fiona watches the U.S. invasion of Iraq on TV — the film is set in 2003 — and says, out loud, to herself: "How could they forget Vietnam?") But it mostly goes, and Grant sees that she's made a new life without him, focusing most of her energy on a new companion, a wheelchair-bound, mostly mute man named Aubrey (Michael Murphy) whom Fiona tends to like, well, a husband.
And, in this trial, Grant finds his own version of grace. He comes to the home daily, just to watch her in her new happiness. To Fiona, he's the nice, if unusually persistent, new suitor, and she treats him with slightly annoyed politeness. Eventually resigned to Aubrey and Fiona's friendship, Grant not only accepts her independence, even as she loses herself, but actively helps her achieve what she wants, even if it's the companionship of another man.
Polley makes the difficult selflessness of Grant's behavior toward his wife's new reality seem real and specific. Away From Her isn't about the journey every Alzheimer's patient takes, nor is the disease used as a metaphor. It's a story about two people, and a surprisingly great one.
Away From Her
Opens Friday, May 18th
Studio on the Square