Away From Her

Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent look out onto an uncertain future.

Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent look out onto an uncertain future.

(Lionsgate) Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent, Olympia Dukakis, Wendy Crewson, Michael Murphy, Kristen Thomson, Alberta Watson, Grace Lynn Kung, Stacey LaBerge. Directed by Sarah Polley.

One of the horrors of aging is Alzheimer’s disease. The effect of the disease on the afflicted person is devastating, but the effect on the loved ones can be even more harsh.

Grant Anderson (Pinsent) and his wife Fiona (Christie) have a good life. They’ve retired to a beautiful cabin in rural Ontario and live comfortably, surrounded by the accumulations of a long life together. However, there are some disturbing signs of change coming into their lives; Fiona is growing increasingly more forgetful, and has started to do some odd things, as when they are putting dishes away after a meal and she puts the frying pan into the freezer.

Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the practical Fiona has no desire to subject Grant to the agony of caring for her while she slowly and inevitably deteriorates. She makes the unilateral decision to check out a local nursing home. At first upset at his wife for acting on her own, he bows to her strong will and sensibility and drives her to the facility.

Once there, they find a pleasant environment with a caring staff but Grant balks when the facility’s director (Watson) informs him that he won’t be allowed to see his wife for 30 days while she adjusts to her new residence. He begs Fiona to reconsider, but she is firm and with a final sweet goodbye, sends him away. When he returns, the changes in her are pronounced. She’s developed a relationship with Aubrey (Murphy), a mute patient whom she cares for as a nurse for a patient. Whether the relationship is more than that isn’t clear; Grant wasn’t faithful to her early in their marriage and he wonders if she’s taking revenge for that. Some days she seems to recognize him, others it’s clear she has no clue who he is. Devastated, Grant takes advice from a sympathetic nurse (Thomson) and Aubrey’s wife (Dukakis), a practical, plain-spoken woman who sees the inevitable but can’t quite bring herself to let go.

Director Polley, best known as an actress in such films as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and the “John Adams” miniseries as well as an impressive roster of indie movies, proves to be a director of enormous potential. She brings a deft touch to a subject matter that could easily become maudlin in less capable hands. Her gaze is unflinching and honest but never feels forced. The Andersons are robust and handsome in their age, but they aren’t archetypes; they’re real people with flaws and no clear direction of what to do. That’s a tribute to the original Alice Munro short story it was adapted from and also to Polley’s writing for which she was Oscar-nominated.

Most of the movie takes place in the winter, but Polley resists the temptation to make the film overcast and gloomy. Instead, nearly everything takes place in bright winter sunlight reflecting off the snow that sparkles like diamonds. The winter metaphor works for that reason without becoming cliché.

Christie and Pinsent are in every scene, either separately or together, and they both deliver outstanding performances. While Christie was recognized with an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe win, I found Pinsent’s performance more riveting as he captures the agony and desperation of a good man seeing the love of his life deteriorate before his eyes.

Despite the acclaim and Oscar buzz, this Canadian production didn’t receive widespread distribution here in the States. Nevertheless this is a movie worth seeking out not just for the subject matter, which may be off-putting for those with phobias about aging and the issues that the elderly face, but also for the on-screen performances which are as compelling as any you’ll see in a small film like this. You may also want to rent it if for no other reason, to mark the occasion of the emergence of a great director who is bound to release some wonderful movies as her career progresses.

WHY RENT THIS: Outstanding performances by the entire cast, particularly the two leads. Beautiful snow-covered exteriors in rural Ontario. An impressive script that never stoops to emotional manipulation or maudlin clichés.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Subject matter may be too age-centric for some. Some of the subplots are merely touched upon without satisfying resolutions.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter may be a bit too intense for kids wondering why grandpa is so forgetful.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lionsgate paid $750,000 for the rights to distribute this film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Nothing notable on the American release; however Canadian readers might look into the 2-Disc special edition for a short film from Polley entitled I Shout Love as well as additional film commentary from Christie.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Strayed (Les Egares)

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1 thought on “Away From Her

  1. I just loved this film when I first saw it a few years ago. It is both touching, realistic and so true in the way it deals with this terrible disease.
    I warmly recommend it as the actors are just incredible right in their acting.

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