Fiona (Julie Christie) and Grant (Gordon Pinsent) have been wed for 44 years, now enjoying their twilight years in the wilds of snowy Canada. When Julie's memory loss turns into a diagnosis of Alzheimer's, she insists on being placed in a home, much to Grant's horror. After time, Fiona's health worsens and she meets another man that, in her confused state, she falls in love with. This places Grant in the uncomfortable position of losing a wife who doesn't even recognize him anymore, leaving him alone and helpless.
Polley, an actress by day ("Dawn of the Dead," "The Sweet Hereafter"), conveys an extraordinary amount of sensitivity in her adaptation of Alice Munro's short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain." "Away From Her" is Polley's feature-length directorial debut, but you'd think after watching the film the 28-year-old actress has been behind the camera for decades. "Away" is confident, attentive filmmaking, inching near a subject that can only lead to catastrophe and daring to treat these older characters with complexity and respect.
Alzheimer's as a disease is a rare destructive force that is almost poetic in the way it slowly robs the life from those inflicted, evaporating right before their eyes. It's a wide-awake nightmare and to cinematically embody that cruel twist of fate, it needs someone brave enough to appreciate the density of a disease that not only takes lives, but entire familial and romantic histories.
It's a gloved directorial effort from Polley; she skillfully approaches the tension between Fiona and Grant to reverse engineer the tragedy. I fear that if I describe the film as heavy, it will scare people away, but there's a blueberry sadness to the film that squeezes the heart tightly. But what's wrong with some tears? Polley's arduous ride of denial is profound in the way it manages the multiplicity of marital relationships and a love that has become rudely erased by disease. Scored to a soothing acoustic guitar and surrounded by fabulously desolate locations (a Canadian winter wonderland postcard), the ambiance is mournful, yet oddly comforting. It's fireplace introspection, which Polley plays beautifully over the faces of the actors.
In Julie Christie's performance, Fiona's memory loss is given an unreal range of hope and fear, each penetrating moment represented through expressions of perceptive dread and wrenching pain. It's a fragile role, as it must communicate the slow burn of the Alzheimer's and confirm Grant's increasing suspicion that Fiona might be using the ailment as revenge for his past improprieties. It's a gorgeous acting job from Christie, striking those moods of frustration, depression, and infirmed calm so vividly. It's a disturbingly authentic performance and one of her best.
"Away" assembles even more intricate plotting in the second half of the film, with Grant finding solace in the arms of another woman (Olympia Dukakis) and facing his fear that he's lost Fiona for good. The frustrations of the film start to add up to a distressing degree, but the peaceful way Polley lets the drama spread out makes all the difference in the world. "Away From Her" is not a painless sit, but it's a rewarding dramatic endeavor, prepared with extreme care and comfort to better swallow such an unjust and sorrowful turn of life.