Based on a short story by famed Canadian author Alice Monroe, director Sarah Polley’s Away From Her (2007) is a bittersweet portrait of self-sacrificing in the face of great personal tragedy. Few movies in recent years have chosen to explore the reality of life altering illness with such focus on impact and aftermath.
The film stars legendary actress Julie Christie as Fiona Anderson, a woman plagued by the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. We first meet Fiona at the beginning of her struggle to maintain clarity within the glimmering twilight of her fading self.
Living in rural elegance with her devoted husband, Grant (Gordon Pinsent), Fiona misplaces regular household items, forgets how to read common labels and gets lost while cross country skiing outside their home. To be certain, there are moments of clarity, but the frequency and clairvoyance in these moments is becoming fewer and far between. Recognizing that life as she has come to treasure it with her husband is fast approaching an end neither wants to face, Fiona convinces Grant to have her committed to a nearby care facility.
The very thought is repugnant to Grant. His concerns are not quelled with a tour of the facility either. It appears quite foreign and remote to him. Staff administrator, Madeleine Montpellier (Wendy Crewson) takes a rather nonchalant and factual approach to both the patients and the care they receive. One of the nurses, Betty (Grace Lynn Kung) advises Grant that he would do better to simply accept Fiona’s mental deterioration and move on. However, Betty also forces Grant to come to terms with his extramarital affairs.
Reluctantly, but with Fiona’s insistence, Grant leaves his wife in professional care with the understanding that he will not visit her for the first thirty days. However, when he finally returns to the facility for a visit, Grant quickly discovers that Fiona’s condition has worsened to the extent where she does not even recognize him as her husband. Worse, Grant is stirred to quiet jealousy when Fiona begins to bond with another patient, Aubrey (Michael Murphy).
Sensing this innocent – though nevertheless romantic - attachment Aubrey’s wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis) returns her husband to her own care, sending Fiona’s already fragile emotional state into a tailspin. His compassion restored, Grant approaches Marian with the possibility of reinstating Aubrey to professional care. An unlikely and flawed romance between Grant and Marian follows.
Director Polley, who also wrote the adapted screenplay, has made the most out of author Monroe’s brief tale of gloomy isolation. The story opens on a decidedly relaxed and sustained cadence that gradually slows to an almost complete halt as Fiona’s condition worsens. Christie is in top form, capturing the fragile complexities of the illness without overplaying her hand. Pinsent is remarkable in the role of the husband, conveying so much with sparse dialogue and a dwindling twinkle of reminiscence for the better times made heart-breaking and unfortunate through his sad old eyes.
Mongrel Media’s anamorphic DVD delivers a beautifully sharp and solid visual presentation. Colors are fully saturated. Fine details are evident throughout. Contrast levels are nicely realized with deep velvety blacks and crisp whites. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and delivers a very sublime sonic spread. This is primarily a dialogue driven story and voices always sound natural. Away from Her is available in both a bare bones movie only disc with audio commentary and a special collector’s 2-disc. Only the former was screened for this review. Highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)