Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
In this age of sensitive hit men and soulful serial killers, dramas about the 'mundane' problems of real people have become scarce. Ordinary domestic issues long ago became the province of TV movies, which were once called 'disease of the week' films. Now they've been largely replaced by stories about murders or the terrorist next door. The prestigious Away from Her is a thoughtful meditation on the problem of caring for older people, a theme that may become more prevalent as the baby boomer population slides into retirement age. More people are living longer lives, and placing burdens on children unprepared to be caregivers.
Away from Her earned high praise for its acting, and the beautiful Julie Christie provided enough of a publicity hook to secure a wide release. Singled out for special mention is the fine work of writer - director Sarah Polley, an accomplished actress fondly remembered as the spunky heroine Sally Salt in Terry Gilliam's Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Away from Her is a deeply affecting drama about the fragility of human relationships.
Well-to-do retirees Grant and Fiona (Gordon Pinsent & Julie Christie) must come to terms with Alzheimer's disease when Fiona begins to experience memory problems. Fiona becomes disconnected from her life, and undergoes personality swings in which she resents her husband for long-forgotten indiscretions. The experts recommend that she needs care outside the home. Persuaded to check Fiona into a care home for a 30 day 'trial', Gordon is hurt by the enforced separation. But he's devastated when Fiona shuts him out of her life: in her identity confusion, she finds a measure of inner peace taking care of another male patient, Aubrey (Michael Murphy). Unsure exactly what to do, Grant contacts Aubrey's wife Marian (Olympia Dukakis).
It was always assumed that audiences went to the movies to escape from unpleasant everyday realities. Leo McCarey's Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) is a shattering story of an aged couple (Victor Moore & Beulah Bondi) forced to separate when neither of their grown children can make room for both of them. Their desire to live together to the end is ultimately considered an inconvenience, and the film ends with a devastating farewell at a train station. The movie is now hard to see but its message hasn't dated a bit.
The characters of Away from Her must deal with a problem that affects millions. Grant faces an unexpected calamity when Alzheimer's strikes his beloved Fiona. She becomes forgetful and disoriented but also grows emotionally distant. They've been inseparable for years and would never think of breaking up, but in her dementia Fiona no longer has control over old resentments. Alzheimer's doesn't just make one absent-minded, it also causes personality changes. Its effect is like the drug in Nicholas Ray's Bigger than Life: the guarded, unpredictable stranger that emerges from Fiona was always there, suppressed but waiting. Grant has no choice but to accept that she is slipping away.
Grant must be cajoled into letting Fiona 'try out' the care facility, which mandates a 30-day no-contact separation period. He is desperate not to let go but wants to do the best for her; and Grant's worst fears are realized when Fiona becomes a virtual stranger to him. The professionals help Grant understand what's happening. Fiona takes to her new life because it's simple and uncomplicated. With a lifetime's 'baggage' to deal with, the work of maintaining her relationship with Grant is confusing, exhausting. Fiona would rather Grant just go away. Worse yet, she throws him over to pick up after the wheelchair-bound Aubrey, an easily upset stroke case who doesn't, or cannot, talk. Fiona feels useful and needed when dealing with Aubrey, an infant-man who gives meaning to her daily routine. Grant is of course destroyed. His beloved Fiona is being taken away from him.
Grant's situation becomes more complicated as he spends time with Aubrey's lonely wife Marian. Marian has her own reasons to feel bitter and deserted, even if her husband isn't at fault. And she isn't the type to suffer quietly. Grant couldn't possibly abandon Fiona, as there are days of clarity when she is able to acknowledge affection for him. Deep inside, even the most complacent of us fears that our loved ones might turn away, refuse to recognize us. Away from Her shows that emotional alienation is more than a subject for paranoid fantasies ... it happens.
At first glance Away from Her seems to be stacking the deck. Grant and Fiona are a handsome, active couple with decent health and no money problems. Their retirement is spent at a secluded lakeside house, and Fiona's lavish nursing home would be way too costly for all but the very rich. But the movie acknowledges this when Grant is made aware that most of the people taking such good care of his wife do not have the same choices. Aubrey's wife Marian has fewer options, and has only some equity in a house that she dare not sell.
Sarah Polley's splendid direction emphasizes the appropriately snowbound landscape. The cinematography does not strive for glamorizing effects, although Ms. Christie arguably has the most beautiful facial wrinkles on record. The only stylistic change occurs in a few flashbacks in which the young Fiona is played by Stacey LaBerge (and looks like a morph between Julie Christie and Susan George). Polley's dramatic pacing allows the sensitive cast to work out the emotional problems of these characters, without begging for sympathy. Gordon Pinsent's Grant yields to 'doing what's right' and learns to be more understanding. Olympia Dukakis' Marian begins a bit cranky, and then becomes amusing. We eventually realize that at 70 Marian has the same needs to fulfill that she had at 30. At one time aggressively in control of her life, Julie Christie's Fiona is forcibly reduced to a different scale of living.
Lionsgate's DVD of Away from Her is an enhanced widescreen transfer with the expected fine image and audio. The disc begins with a charity plea for Alzheimer's research hosted by Olympia Dukakis; she also signs a printed insert in each package asking for help to oppose a disease that has reached epidemic proportions: The Alzheimer's Association.
Julie Christie's sparse full-length commentary provides some interesting observations -- in comparison to the facilities she's seen for wealthy people, the movie's nursing home is an outright fantasy. Christie praises her co-stars and speaks about her admiring relationship with Sarah Polley.
A brief selection of deleted scenes carries optional commentary by the director. Ms. Polley mentions that she's recorded a full-length feature commentary as well. None appears on this disc. It's more than a bit frustrating that Ms. Christie's track would bump the comments of the director. Either that or Lionsgate is saving Polley's track for a later, more elaborate special edition.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Away from Her rates:
Supplements: Commentary by Julie Christie, deleted scenes with commentary by director Sarah Polley
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 10, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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