Marriage, Perseverance Propel Away from Her
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
- 2007 5 May
Release Date: May 18, 2007 (wide)
Rating: PG-13 (for some strong language)
Run Time: 110 min.
Director: Sarah Polley
Actors: Julie Christie, Gordon Pinsent, Olympia Dukakis, Michael Murphy, Kristen Thomson, Wendy Crewson
Early in Away from Her, a doctor asks Fiona (Julie Christie) what she would do if she saw a fire break out in a movie theater. Fiona, who may be suffering the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, hesitates in her response, then dodges the question by mentioning that she and her husband aren’t interested in “all those multiplexes showing the same American garbage.”
If you’ve ever felt as Fiona does about current cinematic fare, then Away from Her is the antidote. Based on a short story by Alice Munro, and adapted and directed by Canadian actress Sarah Polley (who starred in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Sweet Hereafter), Away from Her is graced with an amazing performance by Christie, and powerful support from her co-star, Gordon Pinsent, who plays her husband, Grant. Its depiction of a 44-year marriage union devastated by the onset of a degenerative condition may be smart counterprogramming for adults and older teens looking for a respite from the youth-oriented movies that dominate the screens each summer.
Fiona’s troubles begin when she gets disoriented during one of her regular cross-country ski outings. At home, Grant hands her a frying pan to put away, and she places it in the freezer. Soon it’s Fiona—not Grant—who begins reading up on Alzheimer’s disease.
“Don’t let a person make you feel guilty for your anger with God,” Fiona tells Grant, reading aloud from a book about her condition while she’s still mentally capable of grasping the impact of her ailment and the toll it will take on Grant. Seeking to ease his suffering, Fiona insists on being placed in a nursing home. She bluntly but lovingly tells Grant, “We are at that stage,” and, “All we can aspire to in this situation is a little bit of grace.” Fiona’s faith is never spelled out, but her words, if only platitudes, are powerful nonetheless.
Things are bleaker for Grant, whose adjustment to life without his wife by his side comprises the second half of the movie. After a 30-day period during which he is not allowed to see Fiona, Grant discovers that she no longer fully recognizes him. His loneliness leads him to befriend Marian (Olympia Dukakis), whose ailing husband, Aubrey (Michael Murphy), is in the same home as Fiona. As Fiona deteriorates, she attaches herself to Aubrey, leaving Grant to wrestle with suspicions about the extent of Fiona’s new relationship.
Chapter two of Genesis tells us, “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’” Away from Her, although not rooted in faith, is a beautiful screen portrait of what that means—of how marriage can heal our loneliness, and yet, because of human frailty and fallenness, leave us lonely again, as the mind and body begin to break down.
That fallenness extends to Grant’s earlier days as a married man, with murky hints of his infidelity. Plagued by those memories, Grant wonders if Fiona’s affection for Aubrey is her way of punishing him for his earlier violation of her trust.
Grant’s decision to pursue his relationship with Marian beyond the platonic stage further muddies the moral picture of Away from Her. A shot of the two individuals in bed together, just after sex, is meant to be cathartic for the characters and viewers, but is disappointing in that is shows the violation of their oaths to love their spouses in sickness and in health.
It’s a weak moment in a film that otherwise is brave in its depiction of struggling spouses who fight suspicion and isolation, but who have no extended community to fall back on after Alzheimer’s afflicts their life partners. Instead, they seek refuge in poetry and verse that tells them to “dance while you can,” or in advice that we “sometimes [must] make the decision to be happy,” because “things aren’t ever what you hope they’d be.” Such phrases miss the larger truths about grace and redemption hinted at by Fiona earlier in the film.
Such caveats are not easy to dismiss. But Away from Her, despite some disappointing choices by its characters, is a treasure—a film that shows mature individuals grappling with the twilight of lifelong relationships built on mutual understanding, trust and forgiveness. It’s a complex, lived-in drama about fractured lives.
“I think people are too demanding,” Fiona says to Grant earlier in the film. “People want to be in love every single day.” It’s a recognition that their relationship has had its ups and downs, but that neither person ever walked out on the other. Soon Fiona will have to leave Grant, but in that precious instant, she says, “I’m going, but I’m not gone yet,” as Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” plays on the soundtrack:
But now it's gettin' late
And the moon is climbin' high
I want to celebrate
See it shinin' in your eye.
Because I'm still in love with you
I want to see you dance again
Because I'm still in love with you
On this harvest moon.
“I never wanted to be away from her,” Grant remembers about Fiona. “She had the spark of life.” The wonder of this movie is how Christie’s performance makes us feel what Grant feels. Whenever she’s on-screen, we can’t look Away from Her.
AUDIENCE: Older teens and up
- Language/Profanity: Several profanities.
- Drugs/Alcohol: Some of both; a smoker says he “quit quitting.”
- Sex/Nudity: Married couple is shown in bed twice after having had sex; an unmarried couple is shown in bed right after having had sex; discussion about lovemaking; no nudity.
- Violence: None.