The sight of the patient and caregiver losing their shared life is unbearably sad.
Julie Christie has been a glorious woman at every age. As Fiona in “Away From
Her,” she is riveting. Nearly imperceptible waves of expression move across her
face in a commanding invitation to follow Fiona in her descent into Alzheimer’s
disease – an expression in her eyes, a slight movement of her mouth, a sagging
of her facial muscles to convey her aloneness. The story, written by Alice Munro
and adapted by Sarah Polley, is about the reality of erasure. It is about
Alzheimer’s, but it could just as easily be about growing very old.
Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie) have lived a long marriage in a northern climate where they spend much of their time together in the rural beauty of outdoor winters. It is Fiona who knows when she must go to a home. When Grant cannot bear to leave her there, Fiona sends a note out with the nurse, “Go, Grant, go.” Over time, her natural instincts lead her to care for a fellow patient, a silent man named Aubrey. On his visits, Grant watches their closeness and must accept that his own gestures – reading, reminiscing, recognition - are falling into a distant place in her mind.
In an early scene when Grant tours the home with manager Madeleine (Wendy Crewson), everything that is wrong about growing old or sick surrounds them. Madelene’s practiced cheerfulness (yet how would we have her talk?), the patients on walkers, in wheelchairs, the awful dining room with heads hung low in silence, the platitudes from staff to patient (but how else can it be when there is no response?) These scenes are a bucket of cold water for people who must, for whatever reason, consider full care homes.
At home, shoveling snow or looking out at the places they have skied and walked together, Grant wilts. There is nothing left in this natural beauty for him. And so he looks up the wife (a fine Olympia Dukakis) of the man Fiona has befriended; they share different views of how to deal with his wife and her husband. Marian brings Aubrey home. Grant visits Fiona, hoping for accessibility. In one moment she is away in a distant world, in another she puts her arms around him in lovely recognition only to have it vanish in an instant. When he brings her on a field trip to their home and they watch the news together, Fiona suddenly asks, “How could they forget Vietnam?” Sudden clarity without promise.
This is a difficult movie to experience, but a beautiful one to see. The trial of the patient and the caregiver losing their shared life is unbearably sad. As endearing as Grant is in his bewilderment, it is Julie Christie who embodies the tragedy of this disease. And she does it all with very few words and sublime subtlety. She is so good that we are shocked at leaving her when the lights go up.
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