Alzheimer’s Disease may be the cruelest of all human afflictions, because it makes victims of not only the patients, but also of their family and friends. In Away From Her, it is not a frame or a plot device; it’s the inescapable fact that defines reality for Grant and Fiona. Grant, like a real loved one of an Alzheimer’s patient, is able only to watch as his wife gradually fades away.
There’s something strange and frightening watching Fiona’s transformation. She is already in the grip of the disease when we meet her (putting a frying pan in the freezer, labeling the drawers in her kitchen with post-it notes), but still mostly herself. “I’m going,” she tells Grant as he drives her to Meadowlake, the nursing home she has decided to check herself into to spare Grant the responsibility of having to care for her himself as she deteriorates, “but I’m not gone.” Her memories vanish, but her personality remains. There is a tragic and chilling moment when Grant comes to visit and notices Fiona wearing a sweater that doesn’t belong to her. “It’s tacky and she would never wear it,” Grant tells a nurse. Fiona doesn’t seem to mind. She doesn’t appear to recognize her husband when Grant visits her, but she is too polite to tell him so outright. “You’re very persistent, aren’t you?” she tells him during his daily visits.
When the film debuted almost two years ago at the Toronto Film Festival, the buzz centered mostly on Julie Christie’s performance as Fiona. The reason for that is that Christie gives a brilliant performance. Her Fiona is dismayed by her decline, but handles the situation with calm and grace. She convinces Grant that Meadowlake’s policy of not allowing visitors for new patients during the first thirty days isn’t such a bad thing, and urges him to leave when he lingers after dropping her off, so she won’t be tempted to leave with him. She has read up on Alzheimer’s, she knows what the future holds for her, and she knows that a place like Meadowlake is where she belongs. Julie Christie was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar this year, but lost to Marion Cotillard for La Vie en Rose.
Largely passed-over for praise and awards was Gordon Pinsent as Grant. Critics placed him in the shadow of Christie’s performance, but he is a brilliant actor playing a great character. He has the voice of a man who ought to read aloud for a living. In several scenes, that’s just what he does — he reads the book Letters From Iceland to Fiona in her room at Meadowlake, and has a voiceover where he reads from books about Alzheimer’s, making the description of plaque destroying synapses sound like great tragic literature.
Grant is a good man and a devoted husband, but hasn’t always been. There are allusions to affairs in the past, students of his when he taught mythology at a university. He admits to the young nurse who counsels him that he sometimes wonders whether Fiona’s illness is a penalty for things he’s done in the past. One of the film’s best scenes has the nurse wondering to Grant, “Why is it always the husband who looks back and thinks that nothing too bad ever happened?” Her tone is measured, but eviscerating.
Sarah Polley has appeared in some great films as an actress, notably two contemporary classics by Atom Egoyan, Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter. Now, she’s made a great film as a director. The snow-covered hills surrounding Grant and Fiona’s mountain cabin are used very effectively. I also appreciated the depiction of Meadowlake as something other than a dungeon. It’s a bright, modern facility, staffed by competent, humane, patient people. Fiona’s room looks like one from a nicely appointed hotel. Polley is smart enough to realize that places like Meadowlake will always be depressing and unsettling, no matter how clean and well decorated they are. Watch how Grant seems to sink as he takes a tour of the place, and it dawns on him that this pleasant hospital will be his wife’s home for the rest of her life. Polley also chooses to present the story as a somewhat jumbled narrative, with the progression of Fiona’s disease cutting back and forth with Grant’s conversation with the wife of another Meadowlake patient. Scenes are shown to us out of order, with no explanation, as Fiona herself might recall them as she struggles to hang onto her memories.
As I mentioned near the top, the film is based on a short story by Alice Munro, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” The story can be read for free from the archives of The New Yorker. It is a beautiful, wrenching piece of writing. Reading it after watching the film, I was reminded of Brokeback Mountain and its source, the same-titled short story by Annie Proulx. Like the film adaptation of “Brokeback,” Away From Her features entire scenes that are spun out of single lines in Munro’s story. Polley has also found a way to preserve much of Munro’s exquisite narration, placing it in the mouths of her characters as dialogue. It’s difficult to make a feature-length film out of a 10-page short story without bloating it or betraying its spirit, but Polley and her cast pulled it off with a skill and sensitivity that eludes 99% of filmmakers. Away From Her is sincere and tragic. It is great art.