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Grant and Fiona Anderson have been married for forty-four years. Their marriage has been a generally happy and loving one although not perfect due to some indiscretions when Grant was working as a college professor. Fiona has just been admitted to Meadowlake, a long term care facility near their country home in southwestern Ontario, because her recent lapses of memory have been diagnosed as a probable case of Alzheimer's disease. She and Grant made this decision together, although a still lucid Fiona seems to have made peace with the decision and her diagnosis more so than Grant. With respect to the facility, what Grant has the most difficulty with are what he sees as the sadness associated with the facility's second floor - where the more advanced cases are housed - but most specifically the facility's policy of no visitors within the first thirty days of admission to allow the patient to adjust more easily to their new life there. Based on what he sees when he is finally able to ... Written by
When it comes to "Away from Her," the overused, abused adjective cannot be avoided: it is a great film.
Sarah Polley's film grips, holds, moves, thrills; you will think and talk about it, remember the story and the characters indefinitely - which could well serve as a dictionary definition of "great film." All this from a 27-year-old first-time director!
You will see advertising and hear talk about "the one with Julie Christie having Alzheimer's," but that describes "Away from Her" no better than saying "Hamlet" is about a man who cannot make up his mind. Yes, Fiona, Christie's character, is in the beginning stages of Alzheimer's, but the actress - as beautiful as ever and in her greatest role here - creates a complex, full figure, with good moments and bad ones, with intelligence, warmth, carrying regrets and hurts with grace. The outstanding Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent is Grant, Fiona's loving husband for long, rich decades, albeit with their share of problems.
As the story unfolds, Grant and Fiona face the obvious, the inevitable, but for the audience, there is nothing obvious or inevitable about the way things happen. Polley's writing is Stoppardian in its complexity and brilliance - there is nothing predigested and Hollywoodish here, only life and people as infinitely complex as the human brain. Even as it deteriorates, the brain - and the film about this tragic process - retains its surprises and wonders, and to the very last scene of "Away from Her," you cannot sit back and assume you know what will happen. You don't; the film's unpredictability is one of its great assets.
Add to Polley's script (based on Alice Munro's "The Bear Came Over the Mountain") and direction, to Christie's and Pinsent's magnificent individual and ensemble acting, a cast to treasure. Olympia Dukakis and Michael Murphy play a couple whose lives unexpectedly intertwine with Grant and Fiona's. Kristen Thomson steals whole scenes from the principals as the head nurse at the institution where Fiona is placed; warm, supportive, nurturing and altogether wonderful, the nurse has one quick exchange in which she shows another side and another attitude - and this slight "glitch" makes the character even more real and sympathetic.
"Away from Her" is not a tragedy, it's a drama, which moves and uplifts. It includes charming and funny moments, but even the humor has depth. In one scene, as she is watching TV news from Iraq, Alzheimer's patient Fiona exclaims: "How could they forget Vietnam?!"
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