A Love Story for the Ages

Rarely has a portrait of mature love been depicted so poignantly and honestly on the screen

Critics and audiences alike gave it raves – and now the powerful Canadian drama Away from Her has been nominated for two Academy Awards.

Acclaimed British actor Julie Christie was nominated for Best Actress and Canadian director and writer, Sarah Polley was recognized in the Best-Adapted Screenplay category. (The movie is Ms. Polley’s feature writing and directing debut; an accomplished actress she is also known for her roles in The Sweet Hereafter, Don’t Come Knocking, and Dawn of the Dead.)

Away from Her, which is based on the Alice Munro’s 2001 short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” portrays a woman struggling with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

The central characters, Fiona (Julie Christie) and Grant (Gordon Pinsent) have been married for 44 years. They live out an apparently idyllic, 60-is-the-new-40 retirement in a small town in Ontario – cross-country skiing, reading by the fire, watching the sun set over the lake. Their serene life is marred only a few uncomfortable moments when Fiona is being ‘forgetful’ again (such as when she distractedly puts the freshly washed frying pan into the freezer instead of the cupboard). Such episodes are quickly covered up with a joke and kind laughter.

It’s not long, however, before we realize that Fiona and Grant’s life together may not have always been this seeming fairytale. Through several carefully restrained comments, we get a glimpse of an earlier, more turbulent time in their marriage when Grant, a former university professor, was involved in several scandalous affairs with his students.

As Fiona’s forgetful episodes become more frequent and her short-term memory begins to falter, the past – which Grant thought was long buried – comes more starkly into focus. It is a situation not uncommon for many people with early-stage Alzheimer’s: while their short term memories begin to ebb, long-term memories remain intact. For Fiona, this means she is beginning to forget the redeeming years of her marriage, while still remembering all too clearly Grant’s past betrayals.

But just as you’re expecting the usual bitter recriminations, Ms. Christie’s Fiona remains subtle and sweetly ironic. Her references to his affairs are in fact, underplayed and rather oblique. “All those bare toes, all those sandals,” she says, recalling his temptation in the classroom. “People are too demanding,” she says, philosophically. “People want to be in love every day.”

As Fiona’s ‘forgetfulness’ continues to worsen and, as she puts it, she’s “beginning to disappear”, the couple must face the fact that – despite the fact Fiona is relatively young, only in her 60s – she, in fact, has Alzheimer’s disease.

After she wonders off one day after skiing and becomes lost, Fiona decides it is no longer safe for her to live at home and that she needs assisted care. Grant is reluctant, but his wife insists.

She checks into Meadowlake, a retirement home that specializes in the disease. It is here – after an enforced 30-day separation (a house rule) where Grant cannot visit so that Fiona can ‘settle in’ – that her memory of Grant dissolves. And in what appears to be poetic justice, she becomes attached to another man, Aubrey (Michael Murphy).

When Aubrey’s wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis) returns from her vacation, she suddenly takes Aubrey out of the retirement home. Devastated by the separation, Fiona enters into a deep depression and her condition deteriorates rapidly. Grant, fearful for Fiona’s life, embarks of the greatest act of self-sacrifice of his life as a means to attaining his wife’s final happiness.

Away from Her is one of the most heartrending and courageous explorations of mature love brought to the screen. The questions it ponders are many. Can love continue to exist when a shared past is erased? Is love itself a by-product of memory? Is love, while at times unbearably difficult and painful, worth it?

The movie makes this last question at least, easy to answer.

Away from Her
Directed and written by Sarah Polley; based on the short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro; photographed by Luc Montpellier; edited by David Wharnsby; music by Jonathan Goldsmith; production design by Kathleen Climie; produced by Daniel Iron, Simone Erdl, Jennifer Weiss. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some strong language).

Cast: Fiona – Julie Christie; Grant – Gordon Pinsent; Marian – Olympia Dukakis; Kristy – Kristen Thompson; Aubrey – Michael Murphy; Madeleine – Wendy Crewson.

For more information, or to order the DVD, click here.

Photo copyright © Mongrel Media Inc.