SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO LET GO OF WHAT YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.
I was a little afraid of watching this film. My friends and I have been talking about how we now in our 30s are becoming increasingly aware of the fact that our parents are growing older. We all fear what’s coming and I guess one of the worst ailments that could strike them is Alzheimer’s. Perhaps that is a selfish fear. After all, the illness has been described as the only serious affliction that is harder on the loved ones than the patient. This film illustrates that situation in an intelligent, emotional way.
Fiona and Grant Anderson (Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent) live in Brant County, Ontario and have been married for 44 years. They have spent almost no time apart, but that might change when they are forced to realize that Fiona’s mental health is deteriorating. After doing the dishes, Grant hands her a skillet but she hesitates and can’t remember where to put it; it ends up in the fridge. It’s clear that Fiona is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s but also that hers is a very aggressive case. She knows that it won’t take long until neither she nor Grant will be able to care for her anymore and prepares her husband for it, telling him that he needs to find a good nursing home for her.
When the time does come for Fiona to move there, Grant finds it harder than her to accept what’s happening… but it doesn’t get any easier when Fiona strikes up a connection with a male patient (Michael Murphy) and seems to drift farther away from Grant.
Finding encouraging moments
It was indeed a little tough to watch Sarah Polley’s feature film directing debut, but even though you know that there is no way out of Fiona Anderson’s situation, the film leaves you feeling touched and uplifted. There are no obvious scenes where the music tells you to start blubbering uncontrollably, but it does have emotional power without being too mushy; one of the best scenes is when Fiona checks in at the nursing home and takes complete control in her relationship with Grant and lets him know how this initially difficult time is best handled for her. There are other enlightening scenes where Fiona tries to grasp intellectually what it feels like to be in a position where you no longer recall basic things in your life. The fact that she and her husband are still relatively young only adds to the pain. As Fiona takes a turn for the worse the focus lies increasingly on what Grant is going through, how frustrating it is to see his wife finding a new home in a foreign environment – and accepting facts that are hurtful for him but positive for her.
There’s nothing truly original here, but Polley’s primary achievement is finding encouraging moments for both the patient and the loved one. Excellent performances by the two leads, but also Olympia Dukakis as the pragmatic wife of the male patient Fiona takes a liking to.
There have been a number of films portraying Alzheimer’s disease. This one doesn’t go very far (A Song for Martin (2001) had more cringe-worthy scenes), but you don’t really need to see a scene where the patient soils herself to understand the real horror of the affliction – sitting next to the person you loved all your life and realize that there’s just a shell left.
Away From Her 2007-Canada. 110 min. Color. Produced by Daniel Iron, Simone Urdl, Jennifer Weiss. Written and directed by Sarah Polley. Short Story: Alice Munro (“The Bear Came Over the Mountain”). Cast: Julie Christie (Fiona Anderson), Gordon Pinsent (Grant Anderson), Olympia Dukakis (Marian), Wendy Crewson, Michael Murphy, Kristen Thomson.
Trivia: Co-executive produced by Atom Egoyan.
Golden Globe: Best Actress (Christie).
Last word: “The story is incredibly nuanced and layered, and in many ways it’s extremely faithful to the Alice Munro story. I did add a bit to broaden it and take it out of the context of just being personal, such as her relationship with the war and her remembering Vietnam. It was important for me to interject that, because I think these stories are only relevant if they have a broader connection to what’s going on in the world. Often films exist in a political vacuum.” (Polley, Reverse Shot)