Fiona: If I let it go, it will only hit me harder when I bump into it again.
A couple washes up after dinner. He washes while she dries. They savour the memory of the delicious dinner they just shared. They are smiling and in love after forty-four years together. In a moment of silence, he casually hands her the frying pan he has just cleaned. She dries it with her towel, walks to the freezer and puts it inside. She exits the room as if nothing out of the ordinary has just happened. All he can do is watch, if his intentions are to be sensitive. This is the context in which we are introduced to Grant and Fiona (Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie) in the first feature film adapted and directed by Canadian actress Sarah Polley, “Away From Her”. Polley brings unapologetic honesty and sympathy to the lives of these two characters. After a lifetime together, they will be torn apart by Alzheimer’s. Neither can do anything to stop it. He can only watch her mind disappear while she tries to enjoy the undetermined lucid time she has left. It is Polley’s delicate and respectful hand that guides the viewer to see past the surface of misplaced kitchen apparel and see the longing for tenderness that is had between as it lingers longer than fading memories.
Memory comes in and out in “Away From Her”. With the image often filling with white and veering on blurry like a blinding snowstorm, Polley sets the tone from the start. Memory is a hazy concept. Alzheimer’s is a cruel game that has Fiona having difficulty maintaining her short-term memory, like why she left the house or common words, while some of the most painful memories in her life seem like they will never be forgotten. Her story unfolds as she decides to admit herself to a retirement facility so that her husband needn’t be responsible for her. This particular “home” enforces a policy where new residents are not allowed to have any contact with the loved ones they left behind for the first thirty days after they are admitted. When Grant is finally able to return to the residence, it isn’t clear whether Fiona even recognizes him and worse yet, she has found comfort in the company of another man (Michael Murphy). As painful as this reality is, Polley cuts away to another time and place throughout this build, allowing us a glimpse into where Grant will end up as a result of all this change. As a result, the film feels interrupted. It is one of few mistakes made by this novice filmmaker but fortunately not one that makes the film any less painful.
Polley directs three beautifully nuanced performances from her leads. As Grant, Pinsent is bewildered, stubborn and hopeful depending on the moment. Despite all of his frustration, he is constantly searching for understanding and resolve for the memories even he has difficulty letting go of. Olympia Dukakis joins the cast as Marian, the wife of Aubrey, the man Fiona befriends in the residence. She is a tough woman, brass because she has to be. For Grant, she represents what he could have become had it been decided that he would care for his wife himself. Her life is one that was surrendered to supporting her husband through his illness, forcing personal happiness to be removed as a possibility. Naturally, given the nature of the part, it is Christie that pulls the viewer deep into a mind that is falling away. In one scene, Grant brings her home for a day. She marvels at how it was kept so well after all this time. Though the home she is seeing was her own for over twenty years, she looks on it as if it belonged to someone else. The way her eyes take in the surroundings, an environment that she should know intimately, suggests a sense of attachment intrinsically linked with a saddened detachment. She should know this place, these things, and on some level she does. She does not understand why she should feel a sense of familiarity, just that it is so. It is as though memories flood back to her but they aren’t her own.
“Away From Her” is a fantastic first film from a talented Canadian actress with great promise as both a perceptive writer and skilled director. It is also a lesson in patience and learning to let go. Not for the viewer but for those onscreen. Grant must always exercise restraint while allowing the love of his life to find solace in another man. After all, what matters most is that she be at peace. As big a task as this is, Fiona must do even more. She must accept that the life she knew is behind her and that the one ahead of her is new, necessary and one that might fade away from her as quickly as it happens to her.
Review by Joseph Bélanger