Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Forget her not

By Edward Copeland
"I think I may be beginning to disappear," Fiona (Julie Christie) laments at one point as Alzheimer's disease begins to dissolve more and more of her synapses. Thankfully, Christie has not followed Fiona's evaporation. Age spots dot her hands and lines crease her face, but time has done little to dull her luminous beauty. Her blue eyes remain as penetrating as ever and the film Away From Her, the writing-directing debut of actress Sarah Polley, proves that the years haven't diminished Christie's talent either.

Based on a short story by Alice Munro, Away From Her tells the story of the disintegration of a marriage by the ravages of Alzheimer's disease. What could have been a maudlin Lifetime-esque enterprise in others' hands, becomes a riveting and moving film essay thanks to Polley's artful treatment and her extraordinary cast, which in addition to Christie includes Gordon Pinsent, Olympia Dukakis, Michael Murphy, Wendy Crewson and Kristen Thomson.

During a dinner, in the early stages of the disease, Fiona becomes stumped for what she was about to say and laments that "Half the time, I wander around, trying to remember something pertinent." Grant (Pinsent) and Fiona, once they realize what lies ahead of them, begin to read about what to expect as the disease takes its toll, as books warn to "never make a person feel guilty for their anger with God" and of the pain that will come with presiding over the deterioration of someone you love, something which sounds to them like a "normal marriage."

Part of what makes Away From Her special is that the 44-year-old marriage between Grant and Fiona hasn't always been perfect. In fact, there has been adultery in the past, committed by Grant when he was a randy college professor back in the 1960s, incidents that even Fiona describes as "things I wish would go away, the things we never talk about." Alzheimer's cruelty takes away many memories of Fiona's life, but the hurt from Grant's past betrayals is one of the last to go.

It is especially painful for Grant when the disease gets to the point that it seems necessary to place Fiona in a care facility that requires the Alzheimer's patients be isolated from their loved ones for 30 days to make their "adjustment" easier. The facility's administrator (Crewson), who seems obsessed with pointing out her building's "natural light" insists on the policy, though even one of her most loyal nurses (a great performance by Thomson) questions the policy, thinking it exists to make things easier for the staff, not the patients or their families.

When Grant drops Fiona off, she tries to reassure him that she's "not all gone, just going" and tells him that he "could have driven away and forsaken me, but you didn't. I thank you for that." Unfortunately, 30 days is all it takes for things to change irreparably, as Fiona develops an attachment to a silent patient named Aubrey (Murphy) to the extent that when Grant can visit, he's stuck mostly just watching her and Aubrey.

Later, when Aubrey goes back home to his wife Marian (Dukakis), Grant tries to convince her to let Aubrey go back since Fiona seems so lost without him. Marian admits her motives for keeping him at home aren't noble either: She can't afford to keep him in the care center without losing their home. "Bad luck is just life," Marian tells him. "You can't beat life." Eventually, Marian allows Grant to pursue a type of seduction, even though she knows his true motives and tells him it would "be easier if you could pretend a little."

The performances are great across the board and as good as Christie is, it's really Pinsent whose quiet portrayal of guilt, grief and gradual loss anchors the film. The film's structure bounces back-and-forth in time, perfectly mirroring the fracturing of memory inside Fiona's mind. There even are moments of humor, such as another patient, a former play-by-play announcer who can't speak any other way, commenting as he passes Grant at a particularly painful moment, "There's a man with a broken heart, broken into a thousand pieces."

Polley's film perfectly captures the hurt and frustration of those affected by Alzheimer's without ever sinking to the easy pushing of emotional buttons. Instead, she allows her film's vivid, multidimensional characters' humanity to always take precedent over the disease.

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