Above the entrance of every theater showing Away from Her, there should be a sign that reads, “Abandon all certainties, ye that enter here.” And the very first certainty to be abandoned is the preconception that this movie is all about Alzheimer’s disease.
To be sure, this is the tale-adapted from Alice Munro’s superb short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”-of what happens to a Canadian couple when the wife begins to succumb to Alzheimer’s. Bravely accepting her plight, Fiona insists that Grant put her in a nursing home, though he kids himself that the stay will be temporary, “a rest cure, of sorts.” And in that very modern, efficient, and comfortable establishment a version of hell awaits-not Fiona, who is well treated, but Grant. For after the initial thirty-day period of no visitation that the administration insists will facilitate adjustment, Grant returns to find that his wife has indeed adjusted-by bonding with Aubrey, a silent, emotionally withdrawn fellow patient. Grant, her husband of forty-four years, seems to have been dropped right out of Fiona’s long-term memory, like a mole airbrushed from a model’s skin in a glamour photo. She tells Grant that Aubrey “doesn’t confuse me,” while expressing surprise at her husband’s “persistence” at returning to visit her. So does Grant confuse her? By being part of the world outside the nursing home? By loving her too passionately when she can no longer identify him as her husband? By reminding her, however vaguely, of past rifts in their marriage? Grant’s mind seethes with questions.
Not disease but the opaqueness of human personality lies at the heart of this film. The mystery of old love evanescing. The mystery of new love germinating in a decaying mind. The mystery of what a sane lover is to do with his love when the beloved retires to a secret place the lover cannot enter.
Gordon Pinsent-well known in Canada, almost unknown here-is the perfect actor for a character beset by such enigmas because he does not melt beneath their torment. His face is hard and wintry, a corrugated mask, but the eyes quest and ache. He seems to sight the misery to come and wades out to it with stoic courage. Acting teachers talk about “internalizing” a character’s words and actions, rooting them in a past that the actor has imagined for his role. Pinsent is so successful at this that you can reconstruct forty-five years of marriage in the way he holds Julie Christie in his arms.
Ah, Julie Christie. As Fiona, this good actress and great beauty does for American moviegoers (of a certain age, to be sure) what the less familiar Pinsent can’t: she brings her movie past into her latest role. This might be catastrophic for some parts but it works with Fiona, whose husband has always detected a certain dreaminess in her-“Trying to figure out Fiona had always been frustrating. It could be like following a mirage”-a dreaminess (he temporarily kids himself into believing) that might be the cause of her forgetfulness rather than Alzheimer’s. This exalted space-cadet aura has often been the keynote of Christie’s performances, but she’s always been actress enough to make her vivid personality lend itself to a fairly wide range of characters: the irresponsible dreaminess of Darling, the passionate dreaminess of Dr. Zhivago’s Lara, the opium-addicted independence of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the regal vulnerability of Queen Gertrude opposite Branagh’s Hamlet. But always the supermodel chic, the amused ready-to-try-anything gleam in the eyes, and that wide, voracious mouth. (I first saw Dr. Zhivago with a painter friend. After a Christie close-up, he whispered, “What’s with the lower lip?”) And now that inalienable glamour, here appropriately muted, makes us feel Grant’s bewilderment. If she looks this great, and seems to remain so much herself, how can so much be going wrong in her brain? And why is the universe playing this sick joke on him? No wonder the man feels he is going slightly mad.
And no wonder he will do anything to keep his beloved happy. When Aubrey, only a temporary patient, is retrieved from the nursing home by his wife Marian and the deprived Fiona starts to fall apart, Grant petitions the wife to bring Aubrey back. When she refuses, this aging academic Romeo, explicator of Icelandic texts, goes to work on Marian methodically, ruthlessly, lovingly. Marian knows exactly what he’s after and finally gives in. Fiona gets back her Aubrey. Studly service for the sake of true love? It’s quietly shocking, profoundly moving.
Yet this brings me to my only objection to Away from Her as an adaptation. Though the movie rightly expands Grant’s seduction of Marian (it’s only foreshadowed in the short story), a certain darkish irony is lost. Alice Munro made it clear that Grant had cheated on his wife more than once during the heyday of free love in the 1960s and early ’70s, that Fiona knew this and tacitly put up with it. But now in the grip of her illness she (unconsciously) cheats on him, and he abets her late, strange romance by wooing the wife of Fiona’s romantic companion. Having once indulged himself in extramarital affairs that imperiled his marriage, he now secures his wife’s happiness by committing adultery again. In the story it’s a neat twist, but it doesn’t quite come off in the film because writer-director Sarah Polley merely alludes to Grant’s earlier dalliances in one rather coy montage. Sometimes subtlety can be overdone.
It seems only yesterday that the eight-year-old Sarah Polley was entertaining my toddler, via video, in the 1980s Ramona TV series. Then she grew into a fine actress in difficult roles (The Sweet Hereafter, Guinevere and-fighting off zombies-Day of the Dead). Now she makes a distinguished debut as a feature writer-director. Aside from my one objection, mentioned above, her script adroitly rearranges Munro’s scenes and dialogue when necessary, and fills in the characterizations of Marian and the plucky nurse Kristy in a way that not only makes them plum roles for Olympia Dukakis and Kristen Thompson but deepens the compassion of the drama and brings a novel’s expansiveness to Munro’s economically told tale without adulterating its texture.
Polley’s work as a director is just as impressive. James Agee wrote of “the ‘active’ camera, which takes its moment of the story by the scruff of the neck and ‘tells’ it, and the ‘passive’ camera, whose business is transparency, to receive a moment of action purely and record it.” Polley works well in both modes. Notice how in the exchanges between Grant and Fiona, she eagerly cuts back and forth between them, as if desperate not to miss a reaction or a sudden thought. But in a casual exchange outside the nursing home between Kristy and Grant, she slows the editing rhythm down to put the emphasis on the nurse as she shares her thoughts about Fiona’s future, while Grant stands to one side in profile. He’s learning from her and mulling over what she says while having no immediate reaction to it, so it’s right that we concentrate our attention on the nurse just as Grant does.
As for taking the story by the scruff of the neck, see the scene that encapsulates a visitation day in the nursing home’s parlor. The screen is filled with visiting relatives but, just right of center, one patient sits alone. A series of lap dissolves indicates the afternoon passing. One happy group is replaced by a series of equally happy ones, but the single solitary patient continues to occupy the same place in the shot, an island of misery in a sea of happiness.
But I don’t mean to make Away from Her sound fussily artful. It’s a remarkably direct movie, wrenching yet never depressing.