Despite vivid cinematography and poignant emotion, however, Away From Her lacks an essential energy.
“Direct and vague. Sweet and ironic.” That’s how Grant (Gordon Pinsent) describes Fiona (Julie Christie), his wife of 44 years. It’s also an apt cluster of adjectives for 28-year-old Sarah Polley’s first feature – executive produced by her mentor Atom Egoyan.
Away From Her details a sixtysomething couple handling the desperate descent into Alzheimer’s. From the moment Fiona puts her clean skillet in the freezer instead of the cupboard you know all bodes ill, particularly in the painful context of this truly intimate and enduring relationship.
Fiona enters Meadowland, a retirement home with a 30-day isolation policy for relatives. Thus, when her husband finally goes to visit her a month later, he discovers she no longer knows him, and has developed a close platonic friendship with fellow patient Aubrey (Michael Murphy).
From here the film follows Grant’s struggle to reconcile his loss, confront the latent resentments that have caused Fiona to exclude him and make the kind of brokenhearted sacrifice that inevitably breaks yours.
Polley’s non-linear structure invites a deft examination of the disease, and establishes a true romance between the central couple. She avoids wallowing in Fiona’s degeneration, offering instead a brave and unusual discourse on love in later life, the institutionalisation of relatives and the celebration of the human spirit at any age.
Despite vivid cinematography and poignant emotion, however, Away From Her lacks an essential energy. It feels like a study; a series of observations and conversations. When Olympia Dukakis, as Aubrey’s wife, and Kristen Thomson, as Fiona’s nurse, enliven proceedings with their blunt rationalism you realise that the film always needed more life.
But then again, as Christie says, maybe the point is that “sometimes there’s something delicious in oblivion”.
A 28-year-old juggling Alzheimer’s and Julie Christie?
Love hurts. Unconditional love hurts more.
Scrabble, sudoku, crosswords, folic acid – anything to exercise the mind!