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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
I remember the last time I saw my mother. I sat on the end of her bed, strumming guitar, and singing a song she used to sing to us as children. I hoped she might remember it. She would probably not, however, recognise her son. Or even speak. She had Alzheimer's.
After self-righteous 'disease of the week' movies such as Iris, it is maybe hard to imagine a riveting, nuanced love story of depth and imagination, one centred on loss of memory, but Away From Her succeeds in spades.
Fiona (Julie Christie) has been married to Grant for 44 years. They have reached a stage of lifetime love based on deep knowledge of each other and acceptance of past misdemeanours. Then Fiona's memory starts to fail. As her Alzheimer's begins to need 24hr care, she checks in to Meadowlake residential centre. There she not only forgets who her husband is, but develops an affection for another patient an affection that holds all the tenderness she used to share with her (now onlooking) husband.
Says Producer Simone Urdl, "The role of Alzheimer's in the film is a metaphor for how memory plays out in a long term relationship: what we chose to remember, what we choose to forget." And our ability to recall things, as Oscar Wilde pointed out, is highly selective.
Secure in the knowledge that he has given his wife many years of happiness, Grant glosses over his unfaithfulness in their younger days. But Fiona's early memories stay longer, and come back to haunt him. To bring his wife joy now, he is driven to encourage her towards that which gives him most pain.
Away From Her takes us from frozen, luminescent mise-en-scene of the couple's secure existence in snow-drenched, rural Canada, to the hand-held cameras and uncertainty that hits in Meadowlake. Excerpts from Auden's Letters From Iceland are sprinkled into the script like shards of crystalline beauty. Julie Christie, for whom the lead role was written, exudes dynamic good looks and the vibrancy of a young woman, bathed in such warmth and passion of years. When she asks Grant to make love to her before leaving, there is an urgency and scintillating sexiness about her.
Away From Her sparkles as we watch Grant walk his emotional tight-rope. The movie is made with such surety that it comes as a shock to realise the director is a first time filmmaker in her twenties. Sarah Polley evokes Bergman, as she too touches "wordless secrets only the cinema can discover." This talented young woman is highly selective in her acting roles and now, behind the camera, impresses with her insight and intelligence.
My last conversation with my mother, before she was institutionalised, or I even realised what was happening, was a long distance phone call. After chatting happily for five minutes, she said, quite chirpily and very politely, "What's your name again?" Memory is not always a two-way process. Nor objective. But, like this film, it can be mesmerising, heart-wrenching, and a remarkably intimate vision.
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