Director: Sarah Polley
By Marilyn Ferdinand
There is no anguish quite like that felt by the loved ones of a person who has gone missing. The much-vaunted “closure” that appears to make reconciliation with loss easier cannot occur in an atmosphere of uncertainty. When the missing person was much loved, the stalled grieving process can stop a person right in their tracks for the rest of their lives.
How much worse is it when the missing person is standing right there? Alzheimer’s disease swallows people alive, stealing their memories, robbing their futures, trapping them forever in a narrow, directionless now. Living in “the now” takes on an ominous meaning in this context, at least for the people the Alzheimer’s patient leaves behind.
This dark cavern of experience is explored by fiction writer Alice Munro in her 1999 short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain“. The story focuses on the final crisis of the long-married Grant and Fiona when Fiona is stricken with Alzheimer’s in her 70th year. The omniscient narrator stays well away from Fiona’s spider-webbing mind and focuses instead on how Grant understands and deals with this catastrophe. As with many stories that are grounded to a large extent in academia—Grant is a retired professor of Norse literature and legend who, of course, had myriad affairs—this one is riddled with sex (Grant’s) and a somewhat condescending regard for ordinary people and their native survival instinct that helps them remain pragmatic while their betters struggle.
Somehow, this story appealed to 27-year-old actress Sarah Polley, who chose it for her directorial debut. I dwelled on the literary background of this film to some extent because Polley, who wrote the screen adaptation, transcribes word for word most of the story’s dialogue while attempting to find a cinematic frame for it. I think she made a lot of rookie mistakes both as a screenwriter and a director, but ultimately succeeds in creating a vision that aging Baby Boomers can and should take to heart. Polley also was exceedingly lucky to get the semi-retired Julie Christie, with whom Polley has worked before, to play Fiona. Christie’s performance should garner her an Oscar nomination—and quite likely an Oscar—if anyone remembers this film at the end of the year.
Polley creates a visual metaphor for Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona in her opening shot—the pair are cross-country skiing across a frozen lake that backs up to their spacious cottage in Ontario. Their skis move in smooth parallels in established tracks they must have created themselves. It takes a lot of effort to break trail, so understand the work involved in creating this side-by-side harmony. At one point, Fiona starts making loops in the snow, breaking through fresh snow and disrupting the regularity of the trail. She returns and they head back home.
After this, Polley adopts a time-jumping narrative style. The present time has Grant narrating the story of his wife to the wife of another Alzheimer’s patient at Meadowlake, a facility with assisted-living and full nursing care. Grant’s memory of a young, radiant Fiona proposing marriage to him is gauzy and beautiful. This memory will recur throughout the film, as though it is the last, best way for Grant to hold on to a future full of promise with his rapidly deteriorating wife. Between episodic cuts to Grant finding and meeting this other wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis), we see the scenes of Fiona and Grant’s life as her Alzheimer’s begins to take hold. A quizzical look as she tries to figure out what a frying pan is and then decides it belongs in the freezer; yellow Post-It notes labeling each utensil drawer in the kitchen; a dinner with friends during which she babbles incoherently.
The last straw is when Fiona goes out to ski alone and vanishes for hours. Grant finds her standing on a bridge staring down into a river. He approaches her; she doesn’t recognize him, but she accepts his lift home. She decides they are “at that point” when Meadowlake must be her new home. When Grant visits the facility, he gets the scripted tour by its director (Wendy Crewson) and is told that once Fiona is situated, he will not be allowed to visit for 30 days. He has never been away from her for this long, and somewhere deep inside, he knows this separation will cause her to forget him forever.
On their way to Meadowlake, Fiona recalls the previous summer when they discovered some yellow skunk lilies in a nature preserve—a rare recent memory. The more enduring long-term memory is of Grant’s infidelities, which we see again in Grant’s gauzy memory. The couple’s last moments together—nearly the last Fiona will ever remember of Grant—occur with the awkward dignity Fiona musters to accept her room at Meadowlake. This is a truly painful moment to watch—to see an elegant, intelligent woman giving up her life. Unlike Grant, however, she gets another—one less confusing, one with a companion named Aubrey (Michael Murphy), Marian’s husband, who is there temporarily.
As with the short story, we see this tragedy through Grant’s eyes. He desperately wants to hold on to Fiona, but she is already adrift. He turns to a sympathetic nurse, wonderfully played by Kristen Thomson, for some kind of assurances that Fiona, after all, will come back. She’s pleasantly evasive on that point. He even confesses that Fiona’s “infidelity” with Aubrey is poetic justice for his own affairs. He believes the shred of her that still remains is paying him back. His self-pity and narcissism are annoying, and the ends to which he will go to obviate his guilt—though some might see it as unconditional love—include sleeping with Aubrey’s wife to bribe her to bring Aubrey back to Meadowlake to soothe his pining wife. Grant really is a shit.
And perhaps he seems more the shit because Christie’s Fiona is so graceful, beautiful, resolute, and vulnerable. She grasps for memory like a falling cat grasps for a ledge. Her devotion to Aubrey is extremely touching and so unlike her relationship with Grant, even in her lucid moments. There seems a small cruelty to their marriage. I only wish Pinsent had been able to show that hard heart at Grant’s core. The film would have seemed more fleshed to me; now, Grant just seems rather faded, particularly in contrast to the regal Fiona.
Polley’s shooting choices seem a bit amateurish; the camera occasionally seems out of place, creating some awkward, empty spaces. Worse, her choice to leave all of Munro’s dialogue intact makes this film far too literary; the words sound arch in an actor’s mouth, though they might have worked on the page. She also doesn’t give us much of Grant and Fiona’s life before Meadowlake. Without Christie’s laser-beam performance, I probably wouldn’t have cared much about the tragedy that had befallen this couple. The intercutting of the conversation with Marian and Grant also left me impatient.
Nonetheless, for members of my generation, a fairly privileged lot to which much has been given, Away from Her shows just how easily much can be lost. This is a sometimes exasperating, but memorable, film.