Young director’s haunting debut about Alzheimer’s is hard to forget
AWAY FROM HER
Director: Sarah Polley
Cast: Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent, Olympia Dukakis, Michael Murphy and Wendy Crewson
Opens May 11 at Angelika Dallas.
1 hr. 40 min. PG-13
Few films are able to affect both the head and the heart as much as “Away from Her.” One of the most mature films of the year, it was written and directed by Sarah Polley, who’s not yet out of her 20s. The Canadian actress was in the similarly affecting “The Sweet Hereafter” while still in her teens, but sadly, Polley is best known in the U.S. for the 2004 “Dawn of the Dead” remake. Gay viewers may have seen her in “The Hanging Garden” and “The Event.”
“Away from Her” is “The Notebook” without the teen-appeal flashbacks. Based on a short story, “The Bear Came over the Mountain” by Alice Munro, it’s another tale of a couple dealing with Alzheimer’s.
It’s one thing for Paris Hilton to have the lights on with nobody home at her age, but if in 40 years she’s still pretty but can’t remember words like “hot,” it may take on an air of tragedy.
Still radiantly beautiful and still an incredible actress, Julie Christie plays Fiona, who’s slipping away from Grant (Gordon Pinsent), her husband of 44 years. The narrative structure, which at first makes us feel as disoriented as Fiona, goes back and forth between Grant putting Fiona in Meadowlake, a home for the similarly afflicted, and visiting Marian (Olympia Dukakis, better than she’s been in years), whose husband was also in Meadowlake.
The pieces of the story gradually come together. Grant was a college professor who used to have affairs with his female students. This ended when he retired 20 years ago and he and Fiona moved to the country. But as her short-term memory fades, she can’t always remember the good years they’ve had recently.
“All we can aspire to in this situation,” she says in a lucid moment, “is a little bit of grace.”
Each of them reads from a book about Alzheimer’s, with the exposition preparing viewers for things that won’t happen as well as those that will.
Meadowlake has a rule, explained by supervisor Madeleine Montpelier (Wendy Crewson), that new residents aren’t allowed visitors for the first 30 days, to help them “settle in.” Kristy (Kristen Thomson), the facility’s head nurse, admits to Grant it’s probably more to make it easier on the staff than the guests.
“I never wanted to be away from her,” Grant says, cueing the title.
By the time Grant is allowed to visit Fiona, she’s a different person. Part of settling in has been forming a close bond with Aubrey (Michael Murphy), Marian’s husband. They act like a married couple and she treats Grant like a stranger. She’s flattered to see how “very persistent” Grant is, but Aubrey has first dibs on her time because, she explains, “he doesn’t confuse me.”
Grant continues to visit, but most of the time he can only observe the woman who’s been at the center of his life for most of that life.
Considering that the film is essentially about the messiness of life, Polley’s ending is disappointingly symmetrical, as if she’s suddenly willing to leave the truth behind in favor of what an audience would rather see. It’s not bad, but it’s not up to the level of all that preceded it.
Even so, once you’ve seen “Away from Her,” it will take more than Alzheimer’s to make you forget it.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, April 27, 2007.