Away From Her

25 Jun

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Grant Anderson (Gordon Pinsent) and his wife Fiona (Julie Christie) have been married for 44 years. When Fiona starts to develop Alzheimer’s disease, she opts to enter a care home, a decision accepted but not necessarily supported by her husband. In the care home, Fiona starts to transfer her feelings of love onto another resident. Grant, naturally, has a hard time accepting this and Away From Her looks at the way their lives progress as both parties come to terms with their situation.

The story starts simply. The first introduction we get to the couple shows them at home. Grant washes a frying pan and hands it to Fiona to put away. She takes it off him, walks to the fridge and places the pan in there. Something is wrong here; nobody keeps a pan in a fridge, right? She turns, faces her husband and leaves the room, seemingly with no idea of her mistake. That one interaction sets the tone perfectly for the story we’re about to see. It’s hard to describe effectively, but it starts a moving tale that, if you’re not careful, will chew you up and spit you out an emotional wreck.

Given that the film isn’t especially long (it clocks in at one hour and 45 minutes) it sure does cram in a hell of a lot of poignant moments. Early on, when Fiona accepts her fate with surprising ease, there is a scene where she is reading a book on Alzheimer’s, and reads aloud an extract on the role of the caregiver. You sense that the reality of the situation is sinking in for the couple, and so it does with the viewer. Fiona is ill, she’s not getting better and you’re going to watch her deteriorate. Lovely.

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Early on, Fiona describes the act of going out into the snowy field behind her house, as if looking for ‘something pertinent’, but forgetting what. Several times, the camera looks out at this large field, blanketed in the purest white snow. The shot is one of absolute beauty each time you see it. Maybe I’m over-analysing this, but it struck me that the snowy field was a fitting metaphor for Fiona’s loss of memory. A field that had its own character, it’s own distinguishing features, effectively rendered a blank canvas by an act of nature that it could not control. That’s what I took from it anyway, and I’d like to think it was the intention of director Sarah Polley. It certainly creates something simple and beautiful out of a condition that is anything but.

I also found it interesting that several times prior to Fiona’s admittance to the institution she ends up in, instead of being the one that was scared by what was happening, she played the re-assuring role. Fortunately, the problems that arise in this film are issues I have thankfully limited experience with, but I thought this seemed like a realistic route to take. Grant has a lot of trouble leaving his wife in the home for the first time, but it is at her insistence. He only wants what is best for her, but he threatens to delude himself into thinking she is not actually ill.

The story is fantastic, intelligently charting the significant milestones the couple’s relationship with the illness. Without giving away spoilers that you can’t just find in the one-sentence blurb on IMDB, there are several ‘milestone’ scenes that might have you trying to convince yourself you just had something in your eye. The first time Fiona goes wandering on her own for no obvious reason; the first time Grant drives away from the home for the first time; the first time she forgets who he is. It’s all so real. I realised, before Fiona’s admittance to the home, that despite only having been with this couple for an hour, I felt like I’d know for the whole 44 years of their marriage. The depth of character presented is extraordinary, given the lack of back-story that is actually given to the viewer.

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There is so much to admire about this movie. First and foremost is the acting. Pinsent and Christie and truly brilliant here. They are aided by some excellent direction too, but their portrayal of the couple is outstanding. Their performances can be considered both separately and as one. Christie brings her character to life. I don’t know what experience she has had of Alzheimer’s in her life but her progression is amazing, she is entirely believable as a woman becoming ill and ‘losing it’, as one nurse kindly puts it. She has the most incredible look of confusion behind her eyes as the movie progresses. It’s really quite something to see.

Pinsent too is superb. His progression is less pronounced. At all times, he is a quiet speaker, a man of seemingly few words, but always coming across as sufficiently troubled. If the two are brilliant individually, then the whole film is made by their chemistry together. They work so well as a pair. They are given wholly believable dialogue that helps, but hey fill their marriage and their characters with the most remarkable emotional depth. The whole thing hinges on them being good together, and fortunately they are a roaring success.

Sarah Polley makes the wise decision of letting her characters and their story be the driving force of this film. The direction is stripped back and minimalistic. There is no score to speak of, and on the few occasions where music is included it is always well chosen and appropriate for the situation. As I said earlier, Polley has given her characters some very realistic dialogue to work with. She never loses sight of the very human element of this story.

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Away From Her is an extremely moving, real-world tale of love, sadness and loss in a very real (and impressively un-clichéd) sense. It left me feeling philosophical about the role of film and why we immerse ourselves in a story. This isn’t a movie that one watched to be entertained, as such, but rather to stir up emotion, to appreciate a journey made by characters so well conceived that this could almost be a documentary.

Polley even occasionally allows the most charming, dark humour to fill the screen. These moment are a welcome relief and they never feel misplaced. Her biggest achievement is in knowing what she wanted to achieve and knowing where to leave the film alone. The story is powerful, as are the lead performances and the film is allowed to be powered by those factors alone. Polley strikes a perfect balance between plot and character development. Away From Her is not a film I’ll be in a rush to watch again, but it has certainly left a hell of an impression on me.

9/10

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