Away From Her

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The thing that comes back to me as I think about a film like “Away from Her” is the snow. Snow feels like it’s flooding the film, almost covering it entirely, at times it’s all we see. There is a recurring scene with Fiona (Julie Christie), a woman who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s as she is trekking through the snow on cross-country skis. She is shown with her husband Grant (Gordon Pinsett), but also shown alone. Not much else fills the screen in these scenes other than Fiona. She is travelling on a blank slate, her mind is going, at one point she becomes lost and wanders into a forest. The camera goes from a bird’s-eye view and moves in as she lays down as if engulfed by her surroundings. This must be how it feels when your mind is going.

“Away From Her” deals with Alzheimer’s in a very straight forward way, it pulls no punches on the effects it has on the people who suffer from it, as well as the people who have to watch it happen. But this film is also a love story, and a very effective one at that. It deals with two people who have been married for 45 years and know each other inside and out. They share time together, cross-country ski near their cottage home ,and read books to eachother on their couch. It’s hard to imagine losing the memories of someone who could be that close to you, yet that is just what happens to their world.

We see almost right away Fiona acting a bit out of the ordinary as Grant catches her putting a frying pan in the freezer. Later she has problems remembering which drawers are for which utensils in the kitchen, she has to write notes on them to remember. Things progress during a dinner party,  when Fiona holds up a bottle of wine and can’t quite remember how to say the word “wine”. In this quietly devastating moment, she states that “(she) may be beginning to disappear”.

Grant is reluctant at first to accept that Fiona has Alzheimer’s as he believes she is still rather young to get it. Indeed she does look younger than most people whom one might associate that have the disease, but it becomes more clear to both of them that it is what she has. Not wanting Grant to become her caregiver as her condition worsens, Fiona sets her mind into moving to a care center called Meadow Brook. The catch that does not seem all that enticing to Grant is that once she is admitted to the facility, she is barred from any visitors for the first thirty days in order for a smoother transition.

After the thirty-day prohibition is lifted Grant visits Fiona to find that she has forgotten him completely and has now started a relationship with another resident named Aubrey (Michael Murphy).  Grant is helpless, but he is persistent continuing to visit her every day with the hope that maybe she might remember him.

It’s hard to believe that “Away From Her” could be anyone’s first film considering how assured it is, yet it was the first film by Canadian icon Sarah Polley. Polley started off as a child actress and moved on to be a staple of Canadian independent film. American audiences might know her best in her lead role in the horror remake of “Dawn of the Dead”, but she didn’t go the Hollywood route and instead stayed in her home country of Canada to become the highly respected filmmaker she is today.

Polley directs as if she belonged behind the camera all her life, making the film feel poetic, and dream like. Occasionally Polley cuts from the present to the past to show us Fiona as a young woman seen the way perhaps Grant remembers her. Memory and the past play an important part in the story as we find Grant wasn’t always the faithful husband he is now. It is revealed he did have an affair with a student while he was a university professor, something Fiona has not forgotten at the beginning of the film, and one that makes Grant riddled with guilt. When he first sees Fiona with Aubrey part of him believes it’s her way of punishing him.

Perhaps it is his way of punishing himself as he continues to visit Fiona as she carries on with this man right in front of him. It might also be away for him to make amends and put the past behind him. After Aubrey leaves Meadow Brook from his wife (Olymipa Dukakis), Grant pleads with her to bring him back so Fiona won’t be depressed.

Is Fiona playing mind games? It is never spells it out for us if she can remember, but there are hints of clarity as if she does know Grant, or at least has a vague recollection of who he might be. These scenes are even more tragic, but they are all the more human. What’s worse? To think the person you love might forget you all together or that you might seem familiar to them but they just can’t recall who you are? For some there might be some false hope in the latter, but as one character points out, their memory could come back at any time, but maybe only for a moment and then be gone again. For Grant perhaps he’s hoping for a glimmer or flicker of that memory.

“Away From Her” works as a very adult film, meaning Polley isn’t doing a movie of the week featuring a well-known disease in order to exploit our emotions. Polley is smart enough, and wise enough to know real life doesn’t work that way, and the feelings we might have as a loved one is slowly losing their minds might be more complex than anything we see on the surface.

Much time is taken in the film to explore these relationships, and we even get a wider look at the effects on loved ones as Polley shows us other patients. There is one very sad scene where Grant is sitting in the Meadow Brook dining lounge and sees a deaf daughter talk to her mother who knows sign language, who is afflicted with Alzheimer’s  but still remembers to sign.  Polley shows us time passing to when the daughter has left and the mother sits at the table as if not knowing what to do. After day turns into night, she grabs her walker and is probably put to bed, not a life to envy. We later see the same daughter visiting her mother again but this time she has no idea who she is and another layer of tragedy is introduced when we are told the mother was the only one in the family who learned sign language in order to communicate with her daughter but now she can’t remember.

These moments are small, and quiet, we aren’t given any big dramatic scenes, Polley stays in the realm of realism. Pinsett is a pillar of quiet strength never raising his voice even when we see his anger, and resentment. He has one of the faces that gives us everything we need to know, we always see what he is thinking and what he is feeling, and he barely raises an eyebrow. The one time we do see him lash out in anger, it’s done in an even-tempered way, but it is full of emotion and heartache, it’s difficult not to be moved.

As Fiona Julie Christie has the opportunity to be more showy, that’s usually the benefit of being able to act with a disease. However she remains restrained and playing to the reality of her situation. We see the confusion come through her face, the sadness of not knowing who her husband is, and the depression as her faculties move further away from her.

In a very short time, Pinsett and Christie are able to show us the bond between these two characters, their habits, and their interactions, and how the choices, and mistakes they made have cemented their strong marriage and love for one another. I was touched by how they talked to each other, and how they feel for eachother, it isn’t often we have oder people having sex unless one of their partners is younger, but it goes towards the film’s realism that just because they are older doesn’t mean they are dead sexual or otherwise.  They are a couple who fought for their happiness and now have to fight again.

“Away from Her” came out ten years ago, it was well-regarded at the time earning Oscar nominations for Christie and Polley’s screenplay which is poetic, romantic, and endearing. Seeing it again, it has not lost its edge or beauty. It’s a film that builds on memory, what we want to remember, what we might not want to remember, and what happens when that choice is taken away from us. It’s a quiet film that aches your heart, and fills you with emotion. It fills our minds and our hearts, like the snow filling the screen.

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Thing I Saw in April

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A bunch of obscure John Ford films and Will Arnett in great voice over work filled up my viewing time in April.

The Lego Batman Movie (2017): My lone trip to the theatre this month as I caught up with the Lego Batman Movie which was a fun breath of fresh air. Not since “Batman Returns” has Batman been this fun. This colorful riff on the caped crusader voiced with enthusiasm by Will Arnett is a lark with plenty of gags for fans of Batman and has fun playing with the character’s history. 3 stars out of 4

Bojack Horseman Season 2 (2015) Continuing on my run of Bojak Horseman a much more serious minded comedy about fame and depression in Hollywood than anyone gives it credit for. Bajack is never afraid to go to dark places as this season finds its voice and is more assured than season one. 3.5 stars out of 4

The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) An gangster comedy directed by of all people John Ford. This one stars Edward G. Robinson in a duo role as a meek paperman who is mistaken for a murderous gangster. Robinson has fun sending up his gangster persona, and his meek personality hints at some cast against type roles he would find success in with “Scarlett Street” and “Woman in the Window”. Plus Jean Arthur is in this so this is just a delightful film. 3 stars out of 4

The Hurricane (1937) John Ford’s disaster drama of a coastal Island where the climax involves the storm in the title which is magnificent to see considering the special effects at the time. The central story deals with an Islander who is imprisoned wrongly for years trying to escape in order to be reunited with his wife and daughter whom he hasn’t seen. Once he does escape, the hurricane comes blowing. A wonderful little known golden aged spectacle. 3.5 stars out of 4

The Long Grey Line (1955) Ford’s biopic film of Irish Immigrant Marty Maher who spent over 50 years in west point. The film stars Tyrone Power who is quite good in the lead role. The film isn’t all that accurate and falls under one of Ford’s many tributes of Irish gumption. Still there are many touching and beautifully shot scenes to make this worthwhile. Maureen O’Hara is wonderful as Maher’s wife. 3 stars out of 4

Gideon’s Day (1958) Ford’s british film which follows the day in the life of Gideon who is chief inspector at Scotland yard. Jack Hawkins plays Gideon in a great Fordesque performance, and the film which was shot in parts of London and contains a British cast definitely has a different feel than most of Ford’s films. However it is entertaining and many of the crime stories are engrossing and compelling. 3 stars out of 4