CAPSULE: A woman develops a new personality in the twilight years as Alzheimer's Disease robs her of her memories and her old nature, but has not yet robbed her of mechanical function. Her affectionate husband is bewildered by the initial loss, by the new personality, and by choices she is making. Based on the story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" by Alice Munro, this very personal film is a deeply affecting work from Sarah Polley, a good actress becoming an even better writer and director. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
There is an obvious way to make a film about Alzheimer's Disease. You could show a family unit and how tragically it is affected when somebody gets the disease. It is "Movie-of-the-Week" sort of pathos material. It would be wrong to say that there is none of that in AWAY FROM HER, but that is not really what the film is about. That sort of film is deadening, but in an odd way this film, as written and directed by Sarah Polley, is stimulating. Like the case histories in Oliver Sachs's THE MAN WHO MISTOOK HIS WIFE FOR A HAT it is a study into how the human mind works. Though probably nobody would draw the connection, it also does what the best science fiction does. It shows how recognizable people are affected by one modification to their state of being. Our personality and our identity are in large part made up of our memories and the choices we have made. There may be a twilight stage in Alzheimer's Disease when those memories of who we are and the choices we have made are erased, but mechanical function is not yet impaired. When that happens a different person may emerge, freed by the forgetting of the past.
Grant and Fiona Anderson (played by Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie) are a cerebral and deeply affectionate couple. As Fiona slips into the clutches of Alzheimer's Disease Grant resists having her institutionalized. It is harder on Grant than it is on Fiona. She sees her forgetting the color yellow as a chance to learn it and enjoy it anew over and over. "Sometimes there is something beautiful in oblivion," she explains. Her bewilderment and loneliness is beautifully visualized as she is alone on a wide plain of snow cross-country skiing. Grant's resolve to hold her becomes even stronger when he visits the local care facility, Meadowlake, and sees the dismal environment of people slowly being taken by the grasp of old age and frequently mental deterioration. Grant is reluctant to give up Fiona and begin the new chapter of his life of living alone. Finally it is Fiona who recognizes that she will continue to lose pieces of herself and the break must be made. "All we can aspire to in this situation is a little bit of grace," she reminds Grant.
The rules allow Fiona no visitors in the first month to help her adapt and adjust to her environment. The separation is very difficult for Grant, but what is completely unexpected is that at the end of it Fiona recognizes Grant only distantly. This alternate Fiona will change the relationships of two couples. Grant finds some solace discussing his situation with an experienced orderly, Kristy (Kristen Thomson).
Though there are several good performances, AWAY FROM HER is really Gordon Pinsent's film. Pinsent may not be familiar to people in the States, but he one of the staple actors of the Canadian film industry. He can be more expressive with his eyes than most actors can be with their entire bodies. It is almost difficult to recognize Julie Christie as the same woman who played Lara in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO. Here she is a woman determined that she will go gently and peacefully into the coming night. Michael Murphy plays Aubrey, another patient, robbed of his voice and perpetually frustrated. And a very good performance comes of Olympia Dukakis who becomes an important character later in the film.
With what I believe is her first feature film, Sarah Polley joins the ranks of Ida Lupino, Robert Redford, and Clint Eastwood-- people who became known as actors, but who can achieve far more by directing. This is decidedly one of the better films of the year. I give it a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0491747/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2007 Mark R. Leeper