The first question that arises when viewing Away from her is how Sarah Polley, the 28-year old Canadian actress who has directed the film can know so much about aging, the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease, and the way the two elements of a couple can rub against each other like pebbles on the beach until the edges are smooth, yet retain so many seemingly washed-away memories and resentments.
The second question, obviously, is what is Julie Christie’s secret? She’s 66 years old and looks it, albeit in an enchanting way that would be how women that age would choose to look if they weren’t weighed down by extra pounds, a web of wrinkles, and the bitterness of passing years. Christie’s eyes are every bit as blue as they were in Zhivago and her figure as lissome as in Darling. In Away from her, the screen lights up in a tremulous, heartbreaking way every time she appears and our eyes stay on her the whole time. There is no way we would miss a second of that radiant character. Even the remarkable supporting acting by both Gordon Pinsent and Olympia Dukakis does not distract us.
As a matter of fact, the whole film glows, despite the somber subject matter. Snowy Canadian plains form the background and Christie’s light hair and eyes, Pinsent’s white beard, the sun-drenched interiors, make us accept the inevitable more easily. That inevitable is that, as Fiona (the Christie character) sinks into Alzheimer’s, she—whether consciously or not—pays her husband Grant back for his philandering of many years ago by developing a devoted spousal relation with another of the patients at the assisted living facility where she has insisted on going. In an ultimate act of devotion to a wife who is no longer his, Grant helps her reunite with her new love when they are separated.
The linear story line just described does not do justice to the precision of Polley’s work in this film, to the subtlety with which she gently delves into the many layers that make a human being, pulling one, then the other to the fore, examining the unsaid, describing the forgotten, laying out half memories in the open. That she manages to do this without the least self-indulgence or sentimentality is quite a feat. Even more than in the remarkable film Iris with Judy Dench, about the sinking into the same disease of the highly respected scholar Iris Murdoch, we are treated to a fundamentally hopeless yet still luminous approach to disease, death, and forgetting.
One of my cloe relatives has Alzheimer’s, so I know firsthand how devastating this disease can be. May not as much for the person suffering from it because she’s not really there any more, is she? But for the people around her who love her and care. The Canadian actor who plays the husband shows just how painful this can be.