--- Paul McCartney
Near the end of his life, my father had a heart attack that left his brain deprived of adequate blood flow for crucial minutes. He survived to live another three years, but he never recovered his intellectual prowess. A professor, theologian and writer of prodigious analytical acumen, he was left in his final days unable to do third-grade arithmetic problems. He was embarrassed when I had to help him balance his checkbook. Such experiences with loved ones are sadly common as we age, and certainly anyone who has cared for someone in decline will be a receptive audience for writer/director Sarah Polley's Away From Her, a brilliant and heartbreaking rumination on the power and obligations of love in the face of losing someone who hasn't gone away.
Adapted from Alice Munro's short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," Away From Her is the story of Fiona (Julie Christie) and Grant (Gordon Pinsent), a Canadian couple in their sixties. They have been married more than 40 years, and Grant is now retired from his position as a university professor. Together Fiona and Grant live a quiet life in a rustic house on a lake. They like to hike, cross-country ski in the winter and entertain friends for dinner. They are sexually active and exude a fond comfort in one another's company. In an early voiceover repeated later in the film, Grant speaks of his response to Fiona's surprise proposal of marriage when they were very young. "I never wanted to be away from her," he explains as his reason for accepting, and that rationale summarizes his attitude toward her even as cruel fate begins to steal her away.
We know before we're told that something is awry when Fiona dries a skillet and casually places it the freezer. She has Alzheimer's, and one of the disease's most insidious qualities is the ebb and flow with which it progresses, the victim, in the extended early stages, helplessly aware of exactly what is happening. "I seem to be disappearing," Fiona says. Soon she can't remember common words, and then she takes to using Post-It Notes to label everyday household objects. Eventually, she decides she must retreat to Meadowlake, a nearby assisted-living facility, a move Grant resists, particularly when he learns that he won't be allowed to visit her during the first 30 days of her new residency. He can't stand the idea of being away from her any more now than four decades previously.
On the way to the hospital a secret in their relationship emerges, one I don't find quite consistent with Grant's lifelong devotion. As a young professor, Grant had affairs with his students, one of whom threatened scandal when he broke it off. Fiona has forgiven Grant these indiscretions, but they have left certain scars. She expresses gratitude that he didn't leave her for a younger woman as did other men they have known. This gratitude is a stab in the heart. A woman so kind, graceful, engaging and beautiful, so perfect for Grant, ought never have been forced into an attitude of gratefulness for Grant's merely behaving less shamefully than his friends.
My discomfort with Grant's infidelity is probably a product of my wishing that human beings were better than we are. The Grant we meet adores his wife utterly, and though he never speaks his contrition we know that his one-time disloyalty must eat at the foundations of his soul. Our understanding of Fiona's knowledge about Grant's long-ago affairs colors subsequent events. When the 30 days have elapsed, Grant arrives at Meadowlake to find Fiona emotionally attached to a mute wheel-chair-bound man named Aubrey (Michael Murphy). Grant has been warned that such affiliations are common and are regarded by Meadowlake's staff as fundamentally positive. But Grant is naturally jealous, increasingly so as Fiona begins to treat him with enhanced formality, an uncomfortable politeness that makes him feel like an unwanted suitor. "My, but you're persistent," becomes her usual greeting when he arrives for his daily visit. The advanced state of Fiona's disease makes it unlikely that she's consciously punishing him for ancient sins, but we can't help but note the balance in what Grant must now endure.
To the picture's credit, however, it doesn't hammer this theme of ironic justice. For the sensibility of the film is about something greater than justice; it is about love. Love exists by grace, and as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, "love is not proud," but "always protects" and "always perseveres." And as the ways of God are mysterious, so are the winding ways of love. Fiona's illness adds to the curves on the road to her door. And those twists inevitably require sacrifice, a conscious, willful setting aside of self. Here they steer Grant into a complicated relationship with Aubrey's wife Marian (Olympia Dukakis) and an ultimate giving away of that which Grant holds most dear. And resolutely unsentimental to the end, Polley's script refuses to allow even Grant's selflessness to stand simple, direct and sure. But since his love is true, he proves equal to the tests his devotion demands. And we are the better for having taken the journey with him.
Away From Her will reduce you to tears, not once, but many times. And I cannot close my comments without words of awed admiration for the contributions of all involved. Only 28 years old, Sarah Polley is best known as an actress in such art films as Go and The Sweet Hereafter, but she is a writer and director of precocious talent and demonstrated wisdom. And she has directed her players with maximum precision. Dukakis renders Marian as spicy and raw, her flinty exterior and naked calculation a mask for her vulnerability. Pinsent is absolutely convincing as the devout penitent, a man who has tarnished that which he valued most. And Julie Christie leaves me almost wordless. Among many terrific scenes, the one in which she returns from Meadowlake for a visit with Grant to their lakeside home will live with me always. Standing in the place she lived and loved, speaking to us only with her eyes, she tells of recognition and bewilderment, comfort and alienation, hope and resignation. The awards coming her way for this work will honor but never approximate her incredible rendition of human dignity in the face of ineludible defeat.