The thing that comes back to me as I think about a film like “Away from Her” is the snow. Snow feels like it’s flooding the film, almost covering it entirely, and at times it’s all we see. There is a recurring scene with Fiona (Julie Christie), a woman who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s as she is trekking through the snow on cross-country skis. At times, she is shown with her husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent), and other times, she is alone. Not much else fills the screen in these scenes other than Fiona. She is travelling on a blank slate, her mind is going, and at one point she becomes lost and wanders into a forest. The camera goes from a bird’s-eye view and moves in on her laying down as if engulfed by her surroundings. This must be how it feels when your mind is going.
“Away From Her” deals with Alzheimer’s in a very straight forward way, it pulls no punches on the effects it has on the people who suffer from it, as well as the people who have to watch it happen. But this film is also a love story, and a very effective one at that. It deals with two people who have been married for 45 years and know each other inside and out. They share time together, cross-country ski near their cottage home ,and read books to eachother on their couch. It’s hard to imagine losing the memories of someone who could be that close to you, yet that is just what happens to their world.
We see almost right away Fiona acting a bit out of the ordinary as Grant catches her putting a frying pan in the freezer. Later she has problems remembering which drawers are for which utensils in the kitchen, she has to write notes on them to remember. Things progress during a dinner party, when Fiona holds up a bottle of wine and can’t quite remember how to say the word “wine”. In this quietly devastating moment, she states that “(she) may be beginning to disappear”.
Grant is reluctant at first to accept that Fiona has Alzheimer’s as he believes she is still rather young to get it. Indeed she does look younger than most people whom one might associate with having the disease, but it becomes more clear to both of them that it is what she has. Not wanting Grant to become her caregiver as her condition worsens, Fiona sets her mind into moving to a care centre called Meadow Brook. However it is stipulated that once she is admitted to the facility, she is barred from any visitors for the first thirty days in order for a smoother transition. For Grant, this is not all that enticing.
After the thirty-day prohibition is lifted Grant visits Fiona to find that she has forgotten him completely and has now started a relationship with another resident named Aubrey (Michael Murphy). Grant is helpless, but he is persistent continuing to visit her every day with the hope that maybe she might remember him.
It’s hard to believe that “Away From Her” could be anyone’s first film considering how assured it is, yet it was the first film by Canadian icon Sarah Polley. Polley started off as a child actress and moved on to be a staple of Canadian independent film. American audiences might know her best in her lead role in the horror remake of “Dawn of the Dead”, but she didn’t go the Hollywood route and instead stayed in her home country to become the highly respected filmmaker she is today.
Polley directs as if she belonged behind the camera all her life, making the film feel poetic, and dream like. Occasionally she cuts from the present to the past to show us Fiona as a young woman seen the way perhaps Grant remembers her. Memory and the past play an important part in the story as we find Grant wasn’t always the faithful husband he is now. It is revealed he did have an affair with a student while he was a university professor, something Fiona has not forgotten at the beginning of the film, and one that makes Grant riddled with guilt. When he first sees Fiona with Aubrey together, part of him believes it’s her way of punishing him.
Perhaps it is his way of punishing himself as he continues to visit Fiona and seeing her with Aubrey. It might also be a way for him to make amends and put the past behind him. After Aubrey’s wife takes him from Meadow Brook (Olymipa Dukakis), Grant pleads with her to bring him back so Fiona won’t be depressed.
Is Fiona playing mind games? It is never spells it out for us if she can remember, but there are hints of clarity as if she does know Grant, or at least has a vague recollection of who he might be. These scenes are even more tragic, but they are all the more human. What’s worse? To think the person you love might forget you all together or that you might seem familiar to them but they just can’t recall who you are? For some there might be false hope in the latter, but as one character points out, their memory could come back at any time, but maybe only for a moment and then be gone again. For Grant perhaps he’s hoping for a glimmer or flicker of that memory.
“Away From Her” works as a very adult film, meaning Polley isn’t doing a movie of the week featuring a well-known disease in order to exploit our emotions. She is smart enough, and wise enough to know real life doesn’t work that way, and the feelings we might have as a loved one is slowly losing their minds might be more complex than anything we see on the surface.
Much time is taken in the film to explore these relationships, and we even get a wider look at the effects on loved ones as Polley shows us other patients. There is one very sad scene where Grant is sitting in the Meadow Brook dining lounge and sees a deaf daughter talking to her mother who knows sign language, but is also afflicted with Alzheimer’s. Polley shows us time passing as the daughter leaves and the mother sits at the table as if not knowing what to do. After day turns into night, she is still seen at the same table until she grabs her walker, and goes away, not a life to envy. We later see the same daughter visiting her mother again but this time she has no idea who she is. Another layer of tragedy is introduced when we are told the mother was the only one in the family who learned sign language in order to communicate with her daughter but now she can’t remember it.
These moments are small, and quiet, we aren’t given any big dramatic scenes, Polley stays in the realm of realism. Pinsent is a pillar of quiet strength never raising his voice even when we see his anger, and resentment. He has one of the faces that gives us everything we need to know, we always see what he is thinking and what he is feeling, and he barely raises an eyebrow. The one time we do see him lash out in anger, it’s done in an even-tempered way, but it is full of emotion and heartache, it’s difficult not to be moved.
As Fiona Julie Christie has the opportunity to be more showy, that’s usually the benefit of being able to act with a disease. However she remains restrained and playing to the reality of her situation. We see the confusion come through her face, the sadness of not knowing who her husband is, and the depression as her faculties move further away from her.
In a very short time, Pinsent and Christie are able to show us the bond between these two characters, their habits, and their interactions, and how the choices, and mistakes they made have cemented their strong marriage and love for one another. I was touched by how they talked to each other, and how they feel for eachother, it isn’t often we have older people having sex unless one of their partners is younger, but it goes towards the film’s realism that just because they are older doesn’t mean they are dead sexually or otherwise. They are a couple who fought for their happiness and now have to fight again.
“Away from Her” came out ten years ago, it was well-regarded at the time earning Oscar nominations for Christie and Polley’s screenplay, which is poetic, romantic, and honest. Seeing it again, it has not lost its edge or beauty. It’s a film that builds on memory, what we want to remember, what we might not want to remember, and what happens when that choice is taken away from us. It’s a quiet film that aches at your heart, and bursts with quiet unspoken emotion. It fills our minds and our hearts, like the snow filling the screen.