Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews
- Category: Jacqueline Monahan
- Published on 17 November 2008
- Written by Jacqueline Monahan
Away From Her
Las Vegas Round The Clock - http://www.lasvegasroundtheclock.com
Jacqueline Monahan is an English tutor for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
She is also a consultant for Columbia College Chicago in Adjunct Faculty Affairs
A couple ages gracefully in a charming cottage in central Canada. They share good friends, cross country skiing, nature hikes, books and sex. Life is idyllic. Then one day an insidious enemy invades the contentment, forcing an unwanted and fearful reevaluation of every aspect of their insulated and comfortable routine. Alzheimer’s has become a permanent guest and a demanding one.
Fiona (Julie Christie) puts a frying pan in the freezer and cannot remember what to call wine as she holds the bottle in her hands. Events like these would be humorous if not for their frequency. The incidents escalate and Fiona veers off of the established tracks of her ski trail into suddenly unfamiliar woods, even though her house is in sight. She ends up making a snow angel before strolling aimlessly on the road side where husband Grant, (Gordon Pinsent) finds her. As she wanders in both mind and body, Grant observes each new incident with grim resignation and silent dread, detectable only in his eyes.
“I’m disappearing,” Fiona declares incredulously one day, although not at all frightened. She reads about her condition and inevitable future while she can still comprehend it. Plans are made to move her into Meadowlake, an assisted care facility. It is a slow, painful release for Grant; Fiona is much more practical. She still remembers Grant’s hurtful affairs of the past and mentions it on the drive to the facility. The irony of this memory is not lost on either of them.
Madeleine (Wendy Crewson) is the excessively perky and comforting Director of Meadowlake. She puts a positive spin on all things Meadowlake, reassures Grant that this is the place for Fiona, even the second floor for “progressed” patients when (not if) the time comes. Everything is so very monstrously cheery and upbeat, that Grant is filled with an extreme uneasiness, especially when the mandated 30 day no visitor policy is upheld.
Head nurse Kristy (Kristen Thomson) is Grant’s link to Fiona during this period of time. She tells him what to expect when he returns, but he is unprepared for his wife’s attachment to wheelchair-bound, silent Aubrey (Michael Murphy). Fiona has become Aubrey’s unofficial caretaker and the two men vie for her attention during subsequent visits. Grant even questions the deteriorating Fiona’s motives; jealous of Aubrey, he thinks she’s getting back at him for his randy professorial detours. Kristy is there to set him straight on patient behavior, sometimes predictable, sometimes heartbreakingly random.
We are told through clinical voiceover that Alzheimer’s destroys the brain’s synapses or pathways of knowledge and memory. It is likened to a circuit breaker losing power to one area at a time. This is eloquently illustrated on one of Grant’s solo treks through the woods where a home’s lights switch off room by room until the entire house is dark. Fiona is losing her light, and all he can do is watch the night fall.
Time passes, and Aubrey leaves Meadowlake. Fiona languishes and deteriorates. Grant finds that even in the same room with his wife, she is still far away from him. Books on Iceland, Fiona’s country of origin, and a visit to the cottage do not help. Moments of clarity tease Grant into false hope, only to be met with Fiona’s blank stares and the formal politeness reserved for strangers. “My, you are persistent,” is the only thing she can think to say to him on his many hope-filled appearances. Grant’s visit to Aubrey’s wife Marian (Olympia Dukakis) renders a surprising request, and the two embark on a selfless quest based on pure devotion to their respective spouses.
The ageless, eternally beautiful Julie Christie is flawless as Fiona, whose grace and dignity transcend her disease. The poignant, startling reminders are due to Christie’s skill and quiet understatement.
Gordon Pinsent conveys more with Grant’s facial expressions than all of the research volumes written on the subject of Alzheimer’s. Olympia Dukakis imbues Marian with a strength that’s reassuring in a film where there’s precious little to hang onto that’s familiar and stable.
Even the omnipresent Canadian snow plays a role in the film, plentiful, serene, and featured in virtually every outdoor scene. A short clip of the harsh, forbidding Icelandic landscape is also briefly shown. There’s no doubt that the winter of Grant and Fiona’s life together is upon them. They can choose to make the cross country trek together or they can huddle in fear and darkness. The hope in Polley’s film comes from this journey.
Sarah Polley’s directorial feature debut is a triumphant, straightforward, and intelligent portrait of love amid despair. Her adapted screenplay is from a short story, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” by Alice Munro. Polley steers clear of over-the-top sentimentality, preferring instead to sensitively illustrate the dread, helplessness, and even humor that accompany such a strange and poignant transition into eventual oblivion.
Away From Her may be a film about a long marriage and a short, fading memory but its skillful portrayal will leave you with a vivid impression of love and loss. Fiona may not remember, but you will.