I have to remind myself that Sarah Polley is about a year younger then me when I think on all that she’s done in her life and career. Now she’s added director to her resume, as well as a screenwriting credit for the acclaimed new movie Away From Her. Based on a short story by Alice Munro called “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”, Away From Her is an emotional powerful film about what happens at the end of life and the end of love.
Gordon Pinsent is Grant, a retired university professor living in retirement with his wife Fiona (Julie Christie) in Northern Ontario. Fiona begins to exhibit symptoms of confusion and forgetfulness and a doctor confirms that this is the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Grant and Fiona hold out for as long as they can, but eventually Fiona must go to live in a group home for the elderly. While Fiona faces her fate with incredible strength, Grant holds on to whatever sliver of hope he can that his love will get better.
The film is basically about Grant’s slow realization that his wife’s not going to get better and that he has to face the fact that he’s going to have to go on without her. This leaves a considerable amount of weight on Pinsent’s shoulders and he carries it well. He balances hope and grief, elation and disappointment. We feel for him as he tries to hold on to that slim chance Fiona can get better, but the audience knows better and not because Grant is particularly naïve but because he chooses to hold on and believe in love.
One of the remarkable things about Away From Her is the way it captures the language and feelings of a long lasting marriage, especially when considering that the script was written by someone so young. There are a lot of movies about the end of a marriage, but there are none like this, a devastating portrait of what happens when one spouse must face life without the other after a lifetime together. And you don’t need to know what that feels like first hand to get it, as the raw emotion on screen says enough. But considering the stunned silence and tears from some of the older people in the theatre, I think the desired effect was achieved.
Aside from the sadness there is also humour and even bits of joy. There are good times remembered, and good memories left to be made, like the sight of an old sportscaster calling the play-by-plays all the way down the hospital hallway. No matter your age you’ll fall in love with Julie Christie’s character and take with you a deep admiration for the way she chooses to meet her fate. Through Fiona we learn to appreciate that there is cause for celebration when the end is near, and we learn to accept through remembering the good instead of focusing on the bad to come.
This is powerful filmmaking to be sure, thanks to the steady hand of a director who creates a feeling that this movie was made by someone with three-times her directorial experience. Away From Her is one of the finest movies of the year so far and a Canadian film that deserves to be seen far and wide.