Away From Her
Memories, some say they define us in so far that they remind us of shared experience and the impact we’ve had on other people. But what happens when those same experiences begin to disappear and replay out of sequence? And what remains of those left behind?
“A little bit of grace” is what Fiona (played to perfection by Julie Christie) offers us as an answer. Fiona and her husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent) have never been apart for more than a month in over 40 years of marriage, something that will soon change as Fiona’s Alzheimer’s begins to threaten her way of life and she volunteers to enter a nursing home; new residents must be left without visitors for 30 days in order to acclimatize themselves to their new surroundings and Grant worries how he will cope without her. Once the embargo is lifted, he is even more saddened to realise that Fiona has struck up a tentative relationship with another resident, Aubrey as “coping partners”. When Aubrey is taken home by his wife Marian (Olympia Dukakis), Grant seeks to keep his wife happy at the expense of his own personal feelings.
Shot simply and unadorned, the project as a whole manages to avoid any whiff of pretension about it, although in some ways the obvious simplicity of the script is a hindrance – often the speech required can come across as either structural or worse, point-making. Thankfully for the most part, this is only a minor irritation that occurs too rarely to damage the film in its entirety. For the first-time director, Sarah Polley, it is a more than a trifle triumph that the piece never conveys an overly-sentimental or compartmentalized set of feelings; characters are key and no one outshines the other, each actor adding another layer to the overall story, enriching it further. The fractured chronology of the story serves as a poignant irony to the supposed “progress” of the disease whilst allowing earlier grievances and improprieties to be dealt with in a tasteful but never sterile vantage point.
Acting here is central to any success and it is handled without any significant sense of self-pity or needless aggression. Christie displays every bit of grace that she asks for at the beginning with elegance and humility. Polley’s direction on a superficial level would have us believe that in the years since Christie became a star that not much has changed and for the most part this is true, from an acting point of view her craft has only grown. The blurring of age and time further heightens our understanding of what it means to lose all concept of the same. Pinsent’s Grant is a gentle, charismatic man. He is both appealing and utterly repulsive in equal measure, perhaps best summed up by Marian’s “jerk” comment, which presents its own irony in that Dukakis essentially plays a foil to the man who would rather see his wife happy with someone else than lonely. Marian longs to escape her mute husband who has been sick for some time, causing her no small measure of vitriol for him. Such anger only highlights the cracks that once existed in the otherwise perpetually satisfied and youthful marriage of Fiona and Grant but despite such insecurities, Grant would rather watch his wife from afar whilst Marian would prefer to sit Aubrey in front of ESPN unsupervised and not risk her personal future.
A nurse working in the nursing home muses over how people rearrange their own memories when they experience any sort of loss or hardship. But this film as a whole never concerns itself with wholly individual experiences, creating a general dialogue about love that finds itself deeper, more painful and true than the girth of projects concerned with young courtships.