Away from Her

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Review by © Jane Freebury

This new film from Canada is set in the wintry frozen landscapes of Ontario, within the featureless interiors of an institution for aged care and at the home of an elderly married couple. The atmosphere feels chilly and warm at the same time.

Clearly, Fiona (Julie Christie) and Grant (Gordon Pinsent) still love each other and spend each day together in harmony, needing to communicate little. However, as Fiona retreats into the twilight of Alzheimer’s, it appears there are things still left unsaid, and feelings left exposed and unexpressed as the tide of memory retreats in her mind. The more you think about Away From Her too, the more there is to it.

Change is creeping into the couple’s lives as the disease takes hold. Putting frypans away in the freezer and forgetting where the cutlery lives now amount to rather more than random senior moments and Fiona takes the initiative and begins to read about her condition and the implications it will have on her husband, the caregiver. ‘Sounds like a regular marriage’, she quips, showing that her sense of humour is undiminished.

With considerable courage she makes the decision her husband cannot, and probably will not take. She elects to put herself in a nursing home, a move that leaves Grant home alone for the first time in 44 years.

He’s even less comfortable with how Fiona begins treating him like a distant acquaintance on visits, having transferred her affections to another resident, Aubrey (Michael Murphy) who cannot speak and is confined to a wheelchair. When Grant visits he is greeted with an ‘oh, you are persistent’ as though he were a rather dogged admirer, rather than her husband.

Grant wonders aloud whether his wife is putting on a charade as a kind of punishment for past misdemeanours, a comment that prompts some questions. Or is Fiona’s vaguely detached manner, as though she were an ironic observer of her own life, a form of self-protection?

As the baby boomers get older we can expect to see more openness about the elderly, their relationships and issues, and maybe from any quarter. Filmmaker Paul Cox who gave us love between an elderly couple in Innocence is a veteran director on the local scene, but this film is the work of a young Canadian woman not yet 30. Director Sarah Polley and her actors have made this still and quiet story of decline a subtle and very moving study, free of sentiment and strong on understanding about how Alzheimer’s progresses.

Iris, the recent tribute to celebrated author Iris Murdoch, was also about Alzheimer’s, and it handled the topic very well too. This is, however, a tale for everywoman.

4 stars