Away from Her (Canada, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It has been said that Alzheimer's is the only "major" terminal condition to exact a greater toll on the family than the victim. Compared to cancer (for example), Alzheimer's offers a relatively gentle journey into oblivion for the patient, a gradual dissolution of memory and personality. For the caregivers, however, the experience is different. They must watch as a loved one disappears, stolen away piece by piece, before their eyes. The process of mourning begins before the patient has died.

Because it's such a difficult and unpalatable disease, Alzheimer's has not been a popular subject for motion pictures. Sarah Polley's feature debut, Away from Her, represents one of the few clear-headed, uncompromising looks at the condition and its impacts. In large part due to Polley's approach, this is not a relentless downer. Calling it "life affirming" might be a stretch but it at least offer moments of hope and an understanding of what it means to move on while at the same time remaining true to the past. The tone is different from that of other movies that have wrestled with Alzheimer's. Unlike The Notebook and Iris, Away from Her does not embrace the tear-jerker label. It is sad and touching, but not a tragedy, and it does not seek to reduce its audience to hopeless weeping.

Away from Her is based on Alice Munro's short story, "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," and Polley's adaptation is faithful. The screenplay expands slightly upon its source material, but there are no exceptional additions or deletions. The characters in the movie are cut from the same whole cloth as those in the story. By carefully choosing her cast, Polley has successfully translated the men and women of the book onto the screen.

The film presents the situation from the perspective of a husband as he must cope with being left behind by a beloved wife whose fragmenting memory diminishes his importance in her life. He lives with a measure of guilt - he was not always faithful to her during their marriage - and wonders whether her distance now is in some way a punishment for past misdeeds. He learns patience and sacrifice and, through this, he discovers how to adapt and forge ahead. Away from Her ends with a short scene that offers a sense of closure.

Fiona (Julie Christie) and Grant (Gordon Pinsent) have been married for 44 years when her memory begins to fail. It starts with little things, like putting a frying pan in the freezer and placing "name tags" on drawers indicating their contents. Eventually, when it escalates to the point where she wanders away and can't figure out how to get home, she recognizes that she must enter a care facility. Her choice is Meadowlake, a clean and comfortable nursing home with a strict policy that, during the first 30 days of a resident's stay, they can have no visits nor can they make or receive phone calls. By the time that period is over, Grant discovers that his closeness to his wife is broken and she has found a new special friend, fellow resident Aubrey (Michael Murphy). Grant does not resent Aubrey, but he feels loss when he realizes that this man has replaced him at the forefront of Fiona's affections.

While Polley has a keen sense of how to develop the emotional side of the story, and her eye for detail is impeccable (especially the authenticity of the nursing home), her ear for dialogue needs fine-tuning. Many of the lines spoken in the movie have a scripted feel, often sounding too polished and poetic, and occasionally educating and sermonizing. The source of the problem is readily apparent: roughly 75% of the movie's dialogue is taken verbatim from Munro's story, and the written word can feel unnatural when placed unaltered into the mouth of an actor. While this does not interfere with Away from Her's emotional impact, it lends a sporadic sense of artificiality to some scenes.

For her cast, Polley has selected Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent in the lead roles. Christie is, of course, internationally known and is as arresting and radiant as ever here (although there are scenes in which she allows herself to appear haggard and worn). Pinsent does not have an international reputation but Polley has described him as an "icon" in Canada. He is every bit Christie's match in terms of screen presence and ability to inhabit a character. Michael Murphy remains largely silent and in the background as Aubrey, and Olympia Dukakis plays his outspoken, somewhat abrasive wife. A supporting performance of note comes from Kristen Thomson as Kristy, a sympathetic nurse at Meadowlake. Kristy has an edge, but we should all be so lucky to have someone like her caring for us if we end up in a setting like this.

Polley spent more than a decade as a young actress before venturing behind the camera. She made her first short in 1999, then followed that with several more over the next few years. Away from Her is her first feature, and the care and maturity evident in the production is remarkable for the work of a 28-year old. She has cited Atom Egoyan (who has an Executive Producer's credit) as being her mentor, and there are times when Egoyan's influence can be sensed. Away from Her is a tender movie about a poignant and difficult subject.

Away from Her (Canada, 2006)

Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2007-05-04
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1