Away from Her (2007)
Starring: Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent, Olympia Dukakis, Michael Murphy, Kristen Thomson, Wendy Crewson
Directed by: Sarah Polley
I’ve intended to see this movie since its release, as there generally aren’t many wide release Canadian movies that achieve critical acclaim (off the top of my head, for recent movies I can think of this and… this). But it’s not exactly easy to psyche oneself up to see a quiet drama about the ravishes of Alzheimer’s disease, especially throughout the summer when this was released. But after star Julie Christie and writer/director Sarah Polley each received Academy Award nominations (Polley for her adapted screenplay from Alice Munroe‘s The Bear Came Over the Mountain), I knew I couldn’t wait any longer to watch it.
I’m glad I didn’t. While Away from Her is undoubtedly heart-wrenching at times, it’s not the sort of maudlin grief-fest you might expect. In true Canadian fashion, it’s much more reserved and much less showy in its depiction of the disease and its effect on those involved with it. A typical Hollywood effort would have filled the movie with over-the-top pronouncements of frustration and grief, with the afflicted making their ready-for-my-Oscar portrayal of the mental illness.
Instead, Polley takes a more mature approach to her feature directorial debut, allowing her characters dignity while not shying away from the difficult realities of their situation. Christie gives an excellent, measured performance as Fiona Anderson, a vibrant 66-year-old afflicted with Alzheimer’s, that just may net her an Oscar anyway, without the usual overt showmanship. Gordon Pinsent is her equal as Fiona’s husband Grant who deals with Fiona’s absentmindedness while denying her need to move into a special needs facility.
Eventually, at Fiona’s behest, they check her into the Meadowlake facility, where they are forced to spend 30 days apart to allow Fiona to become acquainted with her surroundings. When Grant returns after this period, he discovers that his wife has seemingly forgotten him, forcing him to deal with the loss of their bond along with a new development that requires him to perform a stunning act of self-sacrifice for her well-being. It’s these developments that help make Away from Her more than a simple movie of the week type presentation of Alzheimer’s, giving the movie real dramatic weight. The decisions the characters make give it a real sense of gravitas and allow the afflicted characters to be more than their disease.
It’s a quiet little movie, sometimes overly so, with Polley employing a broken chronology to make the movie more about the characters than their destination. The broken structure also helps reinforce the theme of the fluid and unreliable nature of memory, giving the movie an elegiac tone without devolving into melodrama. The film marks Polley as a talent to watch behind the camera as much as she is in front of it, producing a mature and assured first effort that is effective without being overly morose, painful yet also beautiful.