Thursday, April 29, 2010

Archive: "Away From Her" (2007)

"Away From Her" is a movie about Alzheimer's disease and the test of love and loss that follows. This is a movie that knows just what it wants to be, sets out to get that done, and in doing so, gets everything right. It's gorgeously sentimental, quiet, resolute, and sincere; it takes a very personal issue and, just like any other fine film one could come across, presents it with an ideal sense of poetic beauty.

Grant Anderson (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona Anderson (Julie Christie) have been married for decades. One can get the sense that their love is true and even in the way they silently cross-country ski together in snowy back-country. Their relationship is strong, lasting, and held together by a private language they both share, even through the complications they've had. They are both intellectual people and their deep connection to one another is obvious almost immediately; however, they are an aging couple and it appears that Fiona is the one taking the biggest hit.

One night, Grant witnesses his wife putting a frying pan in the freezer. He also notices that she has placed labels on all of the drawers. She even forgets the word "wine" even when she stares right at it. Then, Fiona goes skiing out by herself and forgets how to get back home. Grant picks her up on the side of the road, and that's when they realize that they both must face the truth about Fiona's memory loss. They gather up books on Alzheimer's, realizing that this sad fate may be that of Fiona. She doesn't want to have her husband go through with being her caretaker, forcing him to watch her progress towards dementia. And so, she decides that it's time to move into a nursing home. Grant doesn't approve of the idea, but he still reluctantly agrees for her to go.

Grant takes a tour of the nursing home she will be attending. He is shown around by a woman named Madeleine (Wendy Crewson), who doesn't appear to understand the struggle Grant is going through, as she gives off the vibe of simply being a salesperson, reminding Grant how the place has lots of natural lighting. A friendly nurse within the hospital ends up being the one who gives Grant the most advice and the most generosity throughout his visits to the nursing home. Grant worries about his wife's progression with Alzheimer's, but he remains painfully optimistic, thinking that maybe that's just the way his wife is as she gets older.

This remains true until after a 30-day period without any visits granted to his wife when Grant finally gets to see her for the first time; it is the longest absence they've had from each other throughout their 40-year marriage. The moment when she doesn't remember him and simply regards him as yet another visitor to the nursing home is devastatingly heart-shattering. Fiona becomes attached to a mute man in a wheelchair named Aubrey (Michael Murphy); her dedication has been shifted over to this man, and she cares to him in the same passionately intimate way she once cared for her husband, of whom she has now completely forgotten. She remembers the house they live in, though, and other things of her past; with that flicker of hope, Grant visits her everyday with each individual day bringing a different result, some more inspirational than others.

Julie Christie, who has been in films since the 60s, retains grace and beauty in a most nuanced and intelligent performance as a woman struggling with the loss of memory, hope, and love. Canadian actor Gorden Pinsent, too, excellently portrays a struggling husband trying to make sense of his wife's thoughts and actions. There's also the wife of Aubrey who Grant goes to visit for personal reasons in trying to make his wife feel better; her name is Marian (Olympia Dukakis), and although her first meeting with Grant is cold, they soon realize that they share a similar bond with their spouses being in the same state. This actress, Olympia Dukakis, who I have never heard of before now, gives a centered and convincing performance, as well.

"Away From Her" is a film that is unconventional and unafraid, and it admires the intricacies of relationships, especially those involving a long-lasting marriage. It's a believable portrait, capturing the confusion and sadness that comes along with the early stages of dementia. With this film, first-time director Sarah Polley, with a strong visual sense of atmosphere and mood, has crafted a compelling character study that sustains a subdued style of storytelling that nearly becomes a piece of art in its simplicity and poignancy.

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