Monday, 18 March 2013

Away from Her: Love Slipping into Oblivion

When actress Sarah Polley passed her time on a plane reading Alice Munro’s short story The Bear Came Over the Mountain in The New Yorker, she couldn’t know that two years later she would still think of it and take steps to turn it into a feature. Being only in her late twenties at the time, the theme of Alzheimer’s disease and the love of a long-married couple were all but an obvious choice for her debut as director of a full-length film. Nonetheless, Away from Her was the film that Sarah Polley wanted to make and it became a big success with two Oscar nominations (Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay) and a Golden Globe for Julie Christie as Best Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama.

Away from Her was produced in 2006 and  is a quiet, even humble Canadian film that spares the audience the exaggerated emotions and spectacular turns so common in Hollywood. Sarah Polley wrote a tender screenplay that is close to the original story of Alice Munro and that is just as rich in undertones. The setting of the film breathes the unpretentious and settled life of a Canadian couple that has retired to an old house at a lake in Ontario some twenty years before the opening scene. The vast and usually snow-covered plains reflect the husband’s as well as the wife’s initial peace and clarity of mind.

The idyll, however, doesn’t last. When Fiona Anderson (played by Julie Christie) puts the frying pan into the refrigerator instead of into the cupboard, it becomes more than clear that something is wrong. Her husband Grant (played by Gordon Pinsent) is increasingly worried and Fiona herself is very aware of her failing memory. One night she can’t recall the word “wine” during a dinner with friends and she remarks, “I think I may be beginning to disappear”. Soon afterwards Fiona is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and her condition continues to deteriorate quickly.

When Fiona gets lost in the woods close to home during one of her solitary excursions on cross-country skis, the moment has come to take a difficult decision. Grant still hesitates, but Fiona knows that it’s time for her to move to Meadowlake, a nursery home. It’s the home’s questionable policy not to allow any visits during a period of thirty days after admission so the residents get a chance to settle. Grant is reluctant to give in because after forty-four years of marriage he still wants to be away from Fiona although she long started to drift away.

After the thirty days Grant visits Fiona in Meadowlake, but in the meantime she got very attached to her mute fellow-resident Aubrey (played by Michael Murphy) and forgot most things about her previous life. It’s unclear if she remembers that Grant is her husband or not. At any rate, she doesn’t pay attention to him and she calls him “persistent” because he returns every day to see her. When Aubrey’s wife Marian (played by Olympia Dukakis) takes her husband back home, Fiona is plunged into a deep depression and Grant resolves to try to restore at least her happiness.

How Sarah Polley tells the story of this couple resembles the way how patients affected by Alzheimer’s disease may see the world, ie in fractured chronology. The main plot is sometimes interrupted by flashbacks of the couple’s not always perfect past in faded colours and slightly blurred contours, but there’s also the future interfering when Grant is with Marian and tries to persuade her to take Aubrey back to Meadowlake for Fiona’s sake.

Away from Her is a sad film, but then there isn’t to be expected a happy end to a story that revolves around a woman diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and the influence the worsening condition of her memory has on the relationship to her husband. There’s no nice way to put it: Alzheimer’s disease destroys more than just one memory.

The original short story is included in the following collection:

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