Cast: Gordon Pinsent, Julie Christie, Olympia Dukakis, Wendy Crewson, Kristen Thomson
Director: Sarah Polley
Runtime: 106 min.
Old age sure is a tough little time, and as I look at it from this far, there seems to be no silver lining to the graying cloud. It does wonders to have someone along by your side, it is always said, and reiterated. What does marriage offer, other than the usual, you know, love and companionship? You spend all your life with somebody, for somebody and that is what makes memories. You stand on the edge of a cliff looking down, you stand in front of the incoming waves looking at the setting sun, and you wish there was somebody there to share it with you. We’re too selfish, I guess, to enjoy lives for ourselves. We need someone who could reflect our memories, so that we’re reassured we’ve lived our lives. I am not sure what I’m talking about, and how can I be any? All I can is imagine.
Away From Her reassures that imagination of mine, in its most charmingly depressing romantic tale. The Anderssons have lived together for 44 years, from the time Fiona (Christie) proposed to him when she was 18. It has been a long journey of memories. And in one smooth stroke of life, they realize she has Alzheimer’s. The film starts there, in the middle of that recession, and as she puts a washed pan into the refrigerator we immediately realize what Grant has been through, and what’s in store for them. I have read on IMDb, in some posts, that this isn’t an accurate depiction of the disease. Without digressing too much, all I would say is that isn’t the point in the first place.
Since I’ve already betrayed the preconceived notion one has for this kind of a film, I would tell you a little more about the story, in the hope that you would want to watch this film. Which you ought to, you know, for it is one of a kind romance, one that is borne out of the age-old ‘theoretical’ notions of soulmate and all. Especially in a cinematic world, and quite often real world, that seems to hold its interest primarily in the young. As Fiona’s condition seems to gradually worsen she decides to get her admitted to a nursing home. Grant doesn’t want to let her away, but she persuades him. And they both know where they’re headed.
I wonder if there’s a more tragic feeling than the memories of your soulmate slowly but surely receding into a black hole. Though Grant was an English professor, in a heart rending electricity metaphor sequence, he narrates his pain in a seemingly nonchalant manner as he witnesses the lights go by in his house, one by one. As he describes, it is like each of the brain synapses breaking off, and with them is erased one memory. She’s going away from him, and this is one force of life one is helpless against.
He takes her to the caring home, where there’s a rule in place that the visitors aren’t allowed for the first one month. 44 years together, through thick and thin, and now one month without each other is unbearable. Grant is pleading her all the way to reconsider her decision. She doesn’t seem to be having any of it, almost shying away from him. And when they sit on her bed, in a gem of a moment, Fiona begs to him – “You know what I want. I want to make love, and then I want you to leave. If you make it hard, I might cry so hard I’ll never stop.” This is a great performance by Christie (Fahrenheit 451), and the way she delivers this line in one breath breaks your heart. It is as if she has been compelling herself, the entire time, to blurt it all out to Grant, but she fears his vulnerability. He goes, one month passes, he returns and she is company with Aubrey, seemingly in love with him. She has totally forgotten Grant.
I hope I have generated interest, because that is what I intend to do with this fine film. You wouldn’t believe me when I told you who the director of this film is, and the astonishment index will suffer an even higher reading when you will experience the maturity on display. Remember that 15-year old sitting in front of the bus paralyzed from the waist down in that harrowing Atom Egoyan film The Sweet Hereafter. It is Sarah Polley, and at 28 years she displays a talent many are referring to a young Bergman. I’m not sure, but the delicateness, the subtlety, and the beauty with she goes about narrating the romance is a wonder. She has written it herself, adapted from a short story I have never heard of, and she has engrained such beautiful lines into the script. It is intimidating and awe-inspiring, you know, when a person at such a young age showcases such dexterity and grace. It is a difficult subject, and it is easy to follow the path of the pleasing conventional, and the film has nothing to do with it. Yet, almost for the entire film, there’re several tones overlapping each other, and none specific enough to describe a sequence. As Grant watches his wife with the other man, it is sad. Yet the way he dotes on her with his persistence is romantic like no other. The way Polley composes her frames is a joy. The way she lights up her sequences, with the kind of morning glow we only read about in fiction, is in a way despairing yet pleasant. How’s that for irony?
Much of the awards talk for this film is buzzing around Christie’s performance, and deservedly so. Her Fiona is too proud to appear helpless for her sake, and if I let my imagination wander a little, she would have never sought the nursing home had there been no Grant in her life. She does it for him, and the manner in which she tries to shrug her ailment is breathtaking. It is Gordon Pinsent though who would blow your heart away. It is his eyes, which speak a lot when he sees her recede right in front of him. He persistently wishes everyday for a spark of recognition in her eyes, his face a broken picture at the end of a futile day. I hear he’s somewhat of a legend in Canada, he looks like one.
I don’t know if I love this film, I’m sure I admire it a lot. There were times and moments during the film when I found myself leaping, with a pole vault, to be on the same page. And all that time wondering if Grant was persisting for their sake, or for his. As he dotes on her, a young girl bored of it all, sits besides him and asks him who his relative is. He points towards his wife sitting besides another man. When she asks him why isn’t he sitting with her, he just replies – “I’ve learned to give her some space, that is it. She’s in love with that man she’s sitting with. I’m just making sure she’s doing well.” Yet he wishes to get her back. I don’t know, but as I said, we’re just might be too selfish to enjoy lives for ourselves, or maybe too scared. And before I let this horrible little notion of mine gets any truer on me, I guess I better catch something. How does First Blood sound?