Do you remember the first time being absent-minded? I don’t think I do. But once in a while, my brain is so cluttered I would completely lost track of what I am doing. As an example, I would go down the basement and I would forget what I came down to get. So I have to go back up, retrace my steps and search for the source that made me descend in the first place. These momentary feelings of loss are what surfaced while I was watching “Away from Her.” And I thought of what it must be like to constantly forget. It must be frustrating.
In the film, an old woman named Fiona (Julie Christie) exhibits early signs of Alzheimer’s. She puts the frying pan in the freezer. Then, she attaches post-it labels on the kitchen drawers. She forgets how “wine” is pronounced. Eventually, her memory fails her so badly that she could not find her way home. Her ever-patient husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent) continues to care for her and nourish her depleting memory. But as her condition worsens, she must enter a local care facility named Meadowlake. Grant finds the place agreeable, well-furnished, and ran by a helpful staff. The only drawback (and it’s a big one) is Meadowlake’s strict policy of no visitors in the first thirty days. Grant finds it difficult to leave her, or to borrow the movie’s title, to be away from her. What if she doesn’t recognize him after a month of his absence? What if he becomes a stranger?
While I have liked movies which employ memory loss as a story gimmick (Memento, First 50 Dates, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Bourne Identity, etc.), it’s about time a movie illuminates the affliction in a realistic manner. As the Alzheimer’s victim Fiona, Julie Christie is, in a word, superb. The foremost thing you notice about her is that she’s delightfully fetching. Actresses half or even quart of her age can rarely match the genuine charisma she displays. But what makes her performance so good is that she doesn’t resort to blank stares of ambivalence. There’s always life behind her eyes. You can always sense Fiona thinking and talking like she knows what she’s talking about. As Fiona’s husband, Gordon Pinsent brings a quiet but emotional anguish to the role. It’s heartbreaking to see Grant play along with Fiona, even when it is painful to do so. He might not be stricken with the disease, but he’s the one who suffers the most.
Despite the sad subject matter, it is to Sarah Polley’s credit that the film is neither a bleak downer nor a gushy tearjerker. In her directorial debut, the actress-turned-filmmaker has learned well from her mentor, the Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan. Indeed, her approach to “Away From Her” reminded me of Egoyan’s masterpiece “The Sweet Hereafter.” The parallel storylines, the metaphorical passages, the soft fade transitions, and the formidable Canadian landscapes are used to great effect on both films. In “Away from Her,” I liked that white, and not black, is chosen as the film’s dominant color. This seems to suggest that memory loss is more about having a clean slate than being in complete darkness. Yeah, I like that idea. Memory doesn’t really make us who are anyway. We are what we are without it. Remember that.
Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent, Olympia Dukakis, Kristen Thomson, Wendy Crewson, Michael Murphy, Alberta Watson, Thomas Hauff, and Katie Boland
Based on the short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by