Friday, November 30, 2007

Away From Her (****)

Written for the screen and Directed by Sarah Polley


It starts off very small for Fiona and Grant. She mistakenly places pots and pans into the refrigerator or has trouble remembering the name of wine. Grant doesn't think she's afflicted--he feels that she's too young. Then while traveling on skis, she becomes lost; she doesn't remember where she is, and perhaps even who she is. Grant finds her miles away on a bridge looking over into the city lights. It is a fact, Fiona has become afflicted with Alzheimer's Disease.

Away From Her, the feature film directorial debut from B-movie actress Sarah Polley, is a devastating film about the unexpected things we encounter in life, and the tragic elements of Alzheimer's. Based on the short story "The Bear Came Over The Mountain" by Alice Munro, the film addresses how no matter how radiant someone can be, eventually, the erosion begins.

The film is the story of Grant (Gordan Pinsent), a shaggy haired and bearded fellow who has been married to Fiona (Julie Christie) for forty-five years, and has been madly in love with her for all of those years. Fiona is still beautiful and glowing after all this time, but now she must be forced to label the kitchen cabinets to make sure she knows the correct places to put the dishes. Finally, the moment comes when Fiona herself realizes that she should be placed somewhere where she might get better, at the chagrin of Grant's need for her.

Grant researches Meadowlake, a resting home near their winter cottage. He sees all the social interactions between all of the troubled elderly people who have already been there quite a while. When on his tour, he is shown the second floor, where people are placed when they have "progressed further", but what Grant sees is not progression, but many lying in an almost comatose fashion. "My wife will not be progressing to this floor," he tells his tour guide.

Grant distrusts the place, and there is something else he dislikes, he must be withheld from any kind of contact with Fiona for thirty days of her coming in. Grant tries desperately to change Fiona's mind, but she sees it as the best for her. With the aid of a helpful nurse named Kristy (Kristen Thompson), Grant is able to check on Fiona, and when he is finally able to see Fiona, she can barely comprehend him. Instead, she has become immersed with a wheelchair bound mute named Aubrey (Michael Murphey). "What are you doing with this man, Aubrey?" Grant asks the bewildered Fiona. "He doesn't confuse me," she responds.

The movie can simply said to be about the disintegration of the human soul. Grant wants so badly for Fiona to get better, but she has become diagnosed with something where she can only get worse. Slowly, she is disappearing from him, but Grant refuses to accept it. He thinks maybe she is punishing him for a number of affairs he'd had when he was a university professor. Perhaps it's a charade, he ponders, that she's putting on. The most tragic thing Grant learns is that it isn't a charade, it's life.

The film is intertwined with scenes in which Grant visits Aubrey's wife Marian (Olympia Dukakis). They both share the same pain, and even through Marian's stubborn anguish, they are able to find a connection. What they share is not love or even passion, but they share torment. In a world where no one is guaranteed eternal life, why must people be taken away even before the die? "It's bad luck," Gordon confesses to Marian. "No," Marian states, "it's just life."

I fear through my description that the film is coming off sounding very bleak. One of the most magical things about the movie is that through all the tragedy we see, it is all underlined with a message that is very life-affirming. Grant has never experienced anything more painful than having to watch Fiona forget he exists, but it does not stop him from visiting every day, equipped with books and flowers, or anything that might bring back the slightest memory. Before Fiona has become controlled by Alzheimer's, she reflects to Grant her gratefulness that Grant had never left her like all the other university professors who found younger women.
It can be said easily that Grant is motivated by that guilt, but either way, we see his incredible dedication.

The performances by Pinsent and Christie are some of incredible feeling. Pinsent's paunched belly and heavy eyes reflect Grant's undeniable helplessness. The folding wrinkles on his face are so large they almost cover his eyes completely. He gives his wife the space she needs to be comfortable, but still comes everyday just to be able to see her. The performance by Christie, though, is something to ultimately cherish. Her descent is something beyond sad, it is uncanny. Every time Grant comes to visit her, she gives him the same polite smile. She is bothered by his insistence that she remember, but she knows that he will come back the next day. She senses that he is around for a reason.

The movie is one of the most majestic of the year. Few films do as good of a job of portraying such bare emotion. Away From Her had many chances to fall back into tear-jerking melodrama, but it doesn't settle for that. The film knows that what is more effective is how people actually feel.

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