June 14, 2007

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Away From Her (PG-13)
A happily (enough) married couple find themselves slowly separated by Alzheimer’s after 44 years of marriage in Away From Her, a heartbreaking love story.

The movie is even more remarkable when you realize that its director is Sarah Polley, a 28-year-old who has only been married for a little less than four years. Marriage after 40-some years is such a different thing from marriage for a handful of years. And yet Polley is perfectly able to convey the weight and the complexity of this relationship.

Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie) seem to be living the retirement dream. After a life of teaching at a university, Grant retired some 20 years back and the couple moved to a comfortable house on a peaceful lake where they can cross-country ski during the long Canadian winter (the movie is set somewhere in Ontario) and hike in the nearby nature preserve during the warmer months. But then Fiona starts to forget things — what yellow looks like, where to put the pan she’s just dried, her way home after a particularly long cross-country skiing outing that leaves her walking along the highway by herself at night. It’s after this incident that she tells the reluctant Grant that she wants to go into the residential care facility that they’ve been considering as her condition worsened. Grant is terrified of Fiona’s residency there — terrified his wife (who, he wonders to various people, might just be forgetful, not sick) will become like the blank-faced “progressed” patients on the second floor and terrified of just generally having to live without her. Though Fiona seems resolute and has made her decision to enter that facility with both their wellbeing in mind, we also wonder if she really needs to leave. As Grant discovers on their drive to her new home, she remembers some things (a walk months earlier, Grant’s infidelities years earlier) perfectly well. Hospital rules require Grant to stay away from the home for a month — no visits, no calls — and as he leaves, he seems the more heartsick of the two (even though Fiona is losing not just her spouse but also all vestiges of her “normal” life).

A month later Grant arrives to find that, in many ways, the last time he saw his wife was truly the last time he would see and be seen by his wife. She doesn’t recognize him as someone she knows at first — politely talking to him as though he were a new resident. Almost equally painful for Grant — she seems to have found a new companion, a man named Aubrey (Michael Murphy) who she dotes on as though he was her husband. An experienced nurse (Grace Lynn Kung) tells Grant not to take it personally but he can’t help but wondering if it isn’t some punishment for his past treatment of his wife.

On some level, of course, Grant knows Fiona isn’t purposely torturing him. The movie leaves us to wonder, though, whether he might prefer to think of her as getting back at him. It would mean, at least, that she thought of him and of their life together. The alternative is that all their years have simply melted away into the fog of her illness.

The relationship between Grant and Fiona — a relationship that we mostly see in flashbacks — is what gives the movie its heft. Being madly in love is so shallow compared to the love and connection after four decades, Grant says to the nurse at one point. The tragedy of their situation is not that one of them essentially leaves the relationship but that Grant must watch his wife become not his wife, lose the personality and the “spark of life” that so attracted him in the first place as well as the memories and the history that connect them. Perhaps it’s inherent to the nature of story-telling that all the really good, really useful stories about marriage come from a story about the end of a marriage, usually by the death of the spouse (think Joan Didion’s stark and heartbreaking A Year of Magical Thinking or recent movie Sweet Land). Only in stories like these do we really get to see marriage for all its difficulties, its benefits and its complexities.

Performances are solid across the board here — including a supporting role by Olympia Dukakis that demonstrates how not all marriages wind up as full of love as Grant and Fiona’s — and for all the emotion it never devolves into sappiness. Away From Her keeps its characters human — funny, sad and wistful — and keeps what could become a gushy tearjerker a painfully honest, subtle story. A-

PG-13 for some strong language. Written and directed by Sarah Polley (from the Alice Munro short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”), Away From Her is an hour and 50 minutes long and is distributed in limited release from Lionsgate. The movie is currently playing in the Boston area and at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre.