Usually, the problem with dramas of affliction is that affliction isn’t drama. More often than not — in movies, at least — the affliction is just a set of circumstances, by which the ambitious actor has something to do and the audience an open valve for cheap sympathy. That’s the problem. The solution is a movie like Away From Her, a magnanimous and devastating directorial debut from the young Canadian actress Sarah Polley.
Here the affliction is Alzheimer’s disease, and the sufferers are Fiona (Julie Christie) and her husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent), a blithely august, well-matched couple in their 60s. His retirement from teaching college English has provided them with a rural Ontario idyll, where they live in a lakeside cottage, reading to each other and cross-country skiing. But Fiona has been forgetting things. After dinner one dusky evening, Grant watches her put a frying pan in the freezer. They exchange a heavy, portentous look.
In their 44 years of marriage, Fiona and Grant have achieved an intimacy of practical telepathy; in 30 days, they will become strangers. What then? That is a real dramatic question. At first, they have a common unspoken language of wonder and horror at what has befallen them. They’re forced to anticipate the inevitable, sequential obliteration of shared memories, from which the most intimate bonds are made. And they seem to understand that the clouding of Fiona’s mind will be, in its way, clarifying. Adapting Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” with a sensitive and respectful script, Polley suggests right up front that this won’t be a movie about charting the disease’s debilitations. It will be a love story.
Skimming a medical guidebook, Fiona informs Grant that an Alzheimer’s caregiver somehow must greet abject failures of communication and arbitrary abuse genially. “Sounds like a regular marriage,” she says. She resigns herself to a stay in a nursing home; Grant, drifting in and out of denial, tries to keep up his half of the mutual poise, but he finds his good humor has been pinched off, and all he can manage is fragile stoicism. Also, it becomes apparent from their ongoing discussion that he hasn’t always been faithful to her.
On the day of her departure for the nursing home, Fiona asks him how she looks. Like herself, Grant says: “Direct and vague, sweet and ironic.” That’s one of a few lines lifted directly from the short story, but the close, inspecting shot of Fiona over which it’s spoken is so correct that you’d think the movie must have come first. The camera has loved Christie for decades, of course, which only enhances the poignancy here. And Pinsent responds, further unspooling a brilliantly controlled performance of lost control.
The nursing-home vibe, dead-on but smartly underplayed, is one of politely dictatorial inflexibility and manufactured good cheer. Grant can’t stand it, but knows he’s powerless. To ensure her proper acclimation, he’s told, he may not visit for an entire month. After enduring that agonizing stretch, he wonders whether she remembers at least enough to intend her cool, vaguely impersonal greeting upon his return to be tinged with spite.
Worse, Fiona seems to have bonded with another man (Michael Murphy)—a further-gone patient, himself silent and able only to convey the need for her companionship.
“Fiona, what are you doing?” Grant can’t help but ask.
“He doesn’t confuse me,” she says. “He doesn’t confuse me at all.”
And when Grant wonders if her behavior could be “some kind of charade—as a kind of punishment,” we wonder a little, too. Some young filmmakers flaunt ambiguity as insurance against their own sloppy intentions. Polley puts it to use with wrenching precision. There’s a troubling suggestion here of what it takes for lovers to really transcend recriminations (namely, a literal mindlessness), but also a beautiful, clear-eyed view of all that a marriage can be, with the redemptive power of time and true kindness and fearless commitment.
With help from the other man’s wife (Olympia Dukakis, also magnificent), Grant arrives at a hard-won graciousness. For Fiona’s sake, he makes a deeply moving sacrifice—even knowing that by now it might be lost on her.
People already have expressed amazement that such a picture could be made by a 28-year-old filmmaker, figuring it for the work of a very old soul. But Polley’s receptiveness to the material bespeaks the great, generous vitality and the wide-open heart of youth.