Away from Her opens with three shots of long-married couple Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie) cross-country skiing, the first showing them parallel to each other, the second capturing them on seemingly taking divergent courses, and the third depicting them side-by-side once again. A wonderfully subtle, succinct encapsulation of the story’s narrative arc, this sequence is also indicative of actress-turned-filmmaker Sarah Polley’s directorial debut, a low-key, mature, and sensitive study of Alzheimer’s and its ramifications. Based on Alice Munro’s short story The Bear Came Over the Mountain, the film commences with Fiona misplacing a newly washed pot in the freezer—a harbinger of the gradual but inexorable mental deterioration to follow. Away from Her patiently concentrates on both Fiona and Grant’s experiences throughout the subsequent ordeal, the former beset by fear, sadness, and—once she’s admitted to a retirement home—a consequent desire to not come into contact with things from her past, and the latter wracked by silent, lonely misery. With little camera movement or assertive music, Polley creates a portrait that might be dubbed Scenes From a Marriage’s End (the bearded Grant even resembling Erland Josephson). However, her acute navigation of complicated emotions and scenarios, aided by guileless and decidedly un-showy turns by a morose Pinset and an increasingly distant—and phenomenal—Christie, isn’t simply limited to her protagonists’ condition. Expanding to also capture—via an administrator who borders on caricature—the cheery authoritarianism and depressing isolation of elderly care facilities (places where rules are strictly enforced with a smile, and seniors waste away in solitude), the film’s tale becomes complicated by Fiona’s allusion to Grant’s past adulterous misdeeds, an offense figuratively reciprocated by Fiona after she and wheelchair-bound resident Aubrey (Michael Murphy) strike up an intimate friendship. Guilt and shame come to color Grant’s efforts to care for Fiona, yet through his surprising relationship with Aubrey’s wife Marian (Olympia Dukakis), the distraught husband eventually grasps the true meaning of selfless love. His fate is ultimately a hopeful one, though Away from Her earns its carpe diem optimism via its characters’ shrewd, sober understanding and acceptance of the fact that notions of fair or unfair, good luck or bad luck, don’t apply to such wretched situations; rather, as Marian says, “It’s just life. You can’t beat life.”
- 110 min
- Sarah Polley
- Sarah Polley
- Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent, Michael Murphy, Olympia Dukakis, Kristen Thomson, Wendy Crewson
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