The next time your tear ducts need a good workout, treat or subject yourself—depending on your point of view—to Away from Her (2006), the amazingly assured feature-film writing and directing debut of actress Sarah Polley, whose film Go (1999) I loved. At first, I had it confused with Iris (2001), which also concerns a husband (Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent) coping with the Alzheimer’s disease encroaching on his wife, in that case novelist Iris Murdoch (played at various ages by Oscar nominees Kate Winslet and Judi Dench). So I was surprised to see that Polley had adapted it from a story called “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro, whose work has been the basis for several previous films unseen by me.
Dominating Away from Her are two powerful performances, both brilliantly understated, one by a bona fide movie star, and one by a Canadian actor who has never gotten the attention I thought he deserved, despite working steadily for the past 50 years. I first saw Gordon Pinsent, strongly evoking JFK and aptly cast as the unnamed President, in one of my favorite underappreciated movies, Joseph Sargent’s Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), and he provides a similar gravitas here as Grant Anderson. As for Julie Christie, who plays Fiona, I’ll merely cite a few favorites from her impressive oeuvre: François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973).
The film’s fragmented, non-linear structure is both eminently appropriate to its subject matter and carefully calibrated so that the viewer, while sometimes off-base, is never totally at sea in understanding what is happening. Her hair streaked with a silver that is perhaps not her own, but still luminous at 65 (take that, youth-obsessed Hollywood!), Christie plays a woman painfully aware that she risks becoming a danger to herself and a burden to her husband, and the story is set in motion when she enters an extended-care facility in Ontario. The retired couple has never been apart for any significant period of time during their 44-year marriage, but the facility’s policy is to forbid family visits for the first 30 days to let the resident “settle in.”
Once he is allowed to visit, Grant is shocked not only by the deterioration that has made Fiona forget who he is, but also by her attachment to Aubrey (Michael Murphy), a mute, wheelchair-bound fellow resident she now believes to be her husband. As painful as it is for Grant to see them together on subsequent visits, with Fiona regarding him merely as a friendly stranger, it hurts him much more to see her steady decline into depression after financial difficulties force Aubrey’s wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis), to remove him from the facility. Although it is made clear that he has not always been a model husband, Grant now makes a move that is at once selfless and selfish as he tries to persuade Marian to bring Aubrey back, if only for a visit.
Again depending on your point of view, it may seem either entirely inevitable or far too pat that Grant and Marian end up attracted to each other as Fiona is moved to the second floor, where residents have become less functional but sometimes regain their memories temporarily. As the film moves toward its ironic and bittersweet conclusion, its greatest strength—aside from the performances—is its tone, consistently avoiding melodrama or ham-handed musical cues. There are no breast-beating “Why have you done this to me?” (in fact, it is Fiona who insists on entering the facility, despite Grant’s reservations) or “Why is this happening to us?” scenes, which just rips your heart out even more…but in a good way, of course.
Addendum: When I showed this to my mother (see “The Day of the Hunter”) before posting it, she said she vividly remembered reading Munro’s story in The New Yorker a decade ago. Shows you just how powerful it is.