Away from Her
A strong and assured character drama Sarah Polley’s debut feature Away From Her traverses the oft considered thematic territory of love with an honesty and depth rarely achieved in western cinema. What usually passes for ‘love’ on our screens equates more to libido or the fluffy, sickeningly sweet realms of ‘romance’ novels. Away From Her presents ‘love’ as something less comfortable but infinitely more worthy than the inane pap we regularly seem to lap up. In this film love is something that engenders hurt, requires patience and forgiveness, effort and sacrifice, which is as hard edged as it is tender. This portrayal of love is, perhaps, more akin to our own experience.
Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie) are in their sixties and have been married for 44 years. The film’s opening scenes reveal a relationship of warmth, tenderness, humour and familiarity. Before too long it becomes apparent that something is not quite right and we see Fiona slowly slipping into the fearful realms of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. After considering the effects of her degenerative neurological condition she elects to commit herself to a nursing home (albeit a relatively luxurious one) so as to relieve from Grant the burden of becoming a constant caregiver – a decision he is not altogether comfortable with. As the film plays we see Fiona’s gradual loss of identity and Grant’s journey of self discovery. Will this debilitating disease cause their relationship, which seems so strong, to crumble and fall apart?
As the couple are faced with Fiona’s accelerating short-term memory loss we glimpse darker memories from their relationship past; turns out things haven’t always been so easy. Unfortunately for Fiona the very memories she would like to erase are among the ones that won’t see to shift. Adjusting to life in the nursing home Fiona seeks stability and comfort by caring for another, less functional, resident (Aubrey) whom she apparently knew as a young woman. Fiona and Aubrey find solid ground in each other as the rest of their unremembered life disintegrates around them. Grant watches helplessly as Aubrey’s moon waxes whilst his wanes; he struggles to extend Fiona understanding and support whilst receiving neither love nor, at times, even recognition in return. Aubrey’s wife can’t help but see the bond developing between her husband and this stranger and subsequently removes him from the nursing home – sending Fiona into a downward spiral and causing Grant to think long and hard about the character of his commitment to their love and relationship.
Based on the short story The Bear Came Over the Mountain by Canadian author Alice Munro, Sarah Polley has created a worthy motion picture. Polley comments that although she generally doesn’t like cinematic adaptations of books – the stories never seem to get the treatment they deserve – she could see the film unfolding as she read this story. The result: a pithy deconstruction of the nature of love. Away From Her dishes up some meaty drama to sink your teeth into: the fabric and complexity of human relationships. We wouldn’t all make the decisions that Grant and Fiona do but many of us have had, and will have, to deal with difficult situations in our key relationships; circumstances where loving may require hard decisions which cost us much. Far from characterising Grant as simply an enduring, good hearted saint, the writers do a deft job of portraying his complex mix of motivations ranging from true love and devotion through to a sense of guilt and obligation due to his own past misdeeds and Fiona’s faithfulness throughout.
Performances, across the board, are natural and nuanced. Pinsent and Christie share a palpable and believable onscreen connection whilst Olympia Dukakis plays cynical near-widow Marian (Aubrey’s wife) incredibly close to the bone. To simply say that she is working from great source material with consummate performers, though true, would be to undervalue Sarah Polley’s directorial skills. Confident and unobtrusive, with a great eye for the communicative power of facial expression and body language, Polley creates a depth to this story without the need for overly expansive narrative detail. In this way she gives the camera, and the audience, space to linger and process the unfolding story. Sarah Polley is certainly a filmmaker to watch out for in the future and Away From Her is a film that will leave you with plenty to mull over, and talk about with friends, for a long time to come.
Reviewed by: Jacob Powell
Rating: M – Offensive Language
Directed by: Sarah Polley (2007)
Actors: Gordon Pinsent, Julie Christie, Olympia Dukakis, Michael Murphy.
Release Date: 25 Oct 2007