Film conveys the tragic weight of Alzheimer’s
Those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease must lead a fuzzy existence. The distant past is clearer than the recent future – or the present, for that matter. With reality clouded, life is marked by hesitation, indecision, false steps and a loose grip on what is appropriate behavior.”Away From Her” is a film about Alzheimer’s that makes no effort to mimic, onscreen, the effects of the disease. Instead the film, the directorial feature debut by Canadian actress Sarah Polley, is sharp, certain of its every maneuver. Every scene, nearly every line of dialogue, has a gravity to it, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that some crucial turn is just around the next corner. “Away From Her,” adapted from the Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear That Came Over the Mountain,” can feel strangely constrained in this way, but that is exactly what it should convey. The main characters – a woman whose world is being closed off by Alzheimer’s, and her husband, whose expectations are caving in from her condition – are suffering from the tightening walls of old age, the tenseness of an unpredictable future. Even the soundtrack – the acoustic, nostalgic side of Neil Young – becomes a sort of melancholy weight.Grant (Gordon Pinsent), a retired professor of Scandinavian history living in rural Ontario, is actually bearing it up quite well with the onset of his wife’s disease. Fiona (Julie Christie) is still a beauty and still has a decent grasp on the facts of her life. If nothing else, she has many lucid moments, when she can reflect on the creep of Alzheimer’s and share in Grant’s fears.
This is more than enough for Grant. Sometime in their past, Grant had a flare of unfaithfulness and, in part to make amends, he has become touchingly devoted to Fiona. Fiona’s needs aren’t taken as a burden; instead, he finds strength in his role as caretaker. When the Alzheimer’s becomes dangerous, Grant reluctantly takes Fiona to a nursing home for a look-see. The facility is sparkling (are all those stories about the wonders of Canadian health care really true?), but when Grant learns that the home comes with a 30-day no-visitors policy, he trembles at the thought of the new realities – both his and Fiona’s. Even worse than the forced separation is the home’s second floor – a metaphoric step towards heaven, where those most detached from this world are dispatched. The home’s supervisor – whose overly cheery nature is a contrast to Grant’s clear-eyed pragmatism – refers to the second-floor residents as “progressed.”Grant has envisioned his wife’s mental deterioration, but not its byproducts. Visits from her husband are difficult for Fiona, stirring up memories she can’t quite pinpoint and expectations she can’t fulfill. Far easier is the relationship she strikes up with Aubrey (Michael Murphy), a wheelchair-bound mute whose expectations are simple. The friendship pains Grant, who must deal not with caring for his wife, but his own grief over her emotional and physical absence.”Away From Her” ends with a twist that come as no surprise to the viewer – Grant strikes up his own affair, with Aubrey’s practical-minded wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis). But the reasons behind that affair are surprising, and wrap up this meditation on aging, memory and marriage in a warm, mysterious way.
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
“Away From Her” shows Sunday and Monday, June 24-25, at Paepcke Auditorium as part of the SummerFilms series.
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