Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie) are a married couple enjoying their retirement years in a cabin by a lake in rural Canada. They’re comfortable with one another and still in love. They dine with friends, ski cross-country and at night Grant reads to her. One night while washing up after dinner, Fiona puts a frying pan into the freezer instead of the cupboard where it belongs. The look on Grant’s face, a mix of bemusement and concern, tells you this isn’t the first time Fiona has done something odd. Though she’s a radiant and healthy looking 60-something, Fiona is suffering the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and the life she and her husband have built is about to disintegrate.
That’s how Away From Her begins. What follows is a simple, sad and contemplative character study; a meditation on the nature of love as Fiona faces the fear of slowly losing her mind while Grant faces the prospect of losing his wife. As Fiona deteriorates, she eventually takes residence in a well-intended but depressing assisted living facility. Her life with Grant slips away, but for Grant the memories both good and bad are still very real. He’s faced with the additional cruelty of Fiona starting something of a new life without him as she develops a bond with another of the facility’s residents (Michael Murphy).
Julie Christie is beautiful and dignified as Fiona, a woman determined to make the best of a bad situation. Gordon Pinsent with his rich voice and bearish looks brings a warmth, intelligence and sadness to Grant. Olympia Dukakis also brings a naturalness and wit to her role as Michael Murphy’s wife. I wouldn’t be surprised to find any of these names on lists of Oscar nominees come December.
The directorial debut of Canadian indie film star Sarah Polley (The Sweet Hereafter), Away From Her is a beautiful, heart breaking and satisfying film, but it’s not perfect. Some of the dialogue has an awkward, stilted quality as though it’s too anxious to make its point and this somewhat undermines the overall maturity Polley brings to the story. Also there’s an unfortunate and out of place swipe at current events that has the effect of immediately breaking the spell the film has thus far successfully cast. These are small quibbles, however. Ultimately this small, humane story is told with sensitivity and patience and grace. In short, it’s a film worth seeing.
Away From Her: Canada 2006. Written and directed by Sarah Polley. Based on the short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro. Starring Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent, Olympia Dukakis and Michael Murphy. 1 hour 50 minutes. MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some strong language. 3.5 stars (out of 5)