Running Time: 100 minutes
Rated: Rated M (moderate violence and themes)
Would you want to see a film about Alzheimer's Disease, its onset and the effect on a woman who is not particularly old, seems fully alive, a woman of charm and vivacity? If the answer is yes, then this is a film you should see. If the answer is no, then this review would suggest reconsidering the decision.
One of the outstanding features of Away from Her is that it has been made by a young woman.
Canadian actress, Sarah Polley (who has been in films since she was a girl: The Sweet Hereafter, The Claim) has adapted a short story by Alice Munro, The Bear Came Over the Mountain. The screenplay shows a maturity and insight into old age which are quite striking considering that Sarah Polley was in her early and mid-twenties when she wrote and directed the film.
It is a Canadian film but the producers have scored a coup by enticing Julie Christie across the Atlantic to play the central role of Fiona. The story focuses on a couple in their sixties. He has been a professor, now retired, who has lived an active life and may not have always been faithful to his wife. But, she is loving and forgiving, reminding him that unlike other husbands at the university, he never left here.
She has stayed at home. Now, her memory is beginning to fade. We see it in the little details in the house, while she is cooking or in lapses in conversation with guests at table. The significant thing is that she is quite aware of what is happening to her. She accepts the oncoming of Alzheimer's. She calmly decides to enter a nursing home and tries to persuade her husband that this is for the best.
Julie Christie has often been described as radiant on screen. This film comes more than forty years after her Oscar-winning performance in Darling, after Doctor Zhivago and Far from the Madding Crowd. She is most definitely radiant here, persuasive as a woman who accepts what is happening to her and what the consequences will be. It is a beautiful performance.
Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent is her husband. He finds it very difficult to accept his wife's situation. As a concession, he agrees to accompany her to a residence where she could stay for a month as a tryout. The director (Wendy Crewson) is business-like with efficient charm. A nurse on staff is far more sympathetic and helpful. At the end of the month, Fiona opts to stay.
This is where the meaning of the title comes in. The film is poignant in presenting how much loss there is for the spouse who has to relinquish care of the Alzheimer's sufferer and watch, almost helpless, as the partner of so many years drifts away. This is especially hard as the spouse visits the home on an almost daily basis, finds that his wife vaguely recognises him but is far more occupied in tending to a wheelchair bound patient with whom she forms an attachment (Michael Murphy).
The film also gives us another angle on this situation as the husband goes to visit the long-suffering wife of the wheelchair patient (Olympia Dukakis). He finds that she has her own problems in being 'away from him'. She also resents Fiona's interference and wants to withdraw her husband. However, the two form an alliance and a sexual liaison in a form of desperation.
However, the film is one of empathy and hope - it offers some glimpses of recognition and some declarations of love. This is an admirable film on a difficult contemporary reality.
Dendy Out September 27
Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.