Away from Her treats the trauma of loss with the dignity it deserves: as something that never goes away, but settles like a terminal ache deep in your bones. The drama, directed by actress Sarah Polley (My Life Without Me), is about an Ontario couple, Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie), married 44 years and contending in an extremely analytical, reasonable way with the reality of death in their lives. Fiona is not dying, exactly, just losing her mind to Alzheimer's.
The slow, grueling toll of age and illness is always cruel but seems especially so in Grant and Fiona's case. The couple has no children and so rely on each other in contented, bohemian, bookish isolation in a rustic cabin in the woods. They play Van Morrison on the car radio, ski cross-country and have friends over for dinner. If not for the onslaught of the disease, the lives of these two virile, beautiful people would seem as ideal as an ad for scotch or an expensive automobile.
For a couple as iconoclastic and irregular as this one, the loss of self represented in Fiona's deteriorating brain is like death itself; the person Grant knows will be lost inside the beautiful husk of his wife. Two deaths are imminent: the death of their marriage as it once was, and the death of something essentially "Fiona."
Comfortable and well-appointed though it might be, the nursing home where Fiona and Grant have agreed she will live is also an institution populated by condescending bureaucrats, elevator music, conventionalized recreation and other mainstream cultural standards that visibly unsettle Grant.
Away from Her is about the dense and complicated psychology that underpins what happens between Grant and Fiona once she makes up her mind to enter the nursing home and Grant begins to balk.
"I don't think I like the place," Grant tells her, in a painfully protracted separation.
"There is no place to like," she tells him, in an exchange that tugs at the finality of the metaphorical place she is going, both Alzheimer's and death. It becomes evident that despite her fragile mental health, Fiona realizes she must be the one to cut the cord between them, to release Grant from the difficulty of caring for her.
Once in the home, something unexpected passes between them. Either willingly, or as some psychological coping strategy, Fiona begins to forget her husband and takes up with helpless, wheelchair-bound Aubrey (Michael Murphy), who she is better able to nurture and care for. There is the possibility, hinted at, that Fiona may be punishing Grant for some past transgression or perhaps only functioning according to her inherent nature, like a devoted wife who would drift and fret without a husband to care for.
Away from Her is an affecting portrait of marriage as an enduring, painful compromise, in which love trumps short-term satisfaction. Grant comes to visit and watches Fiona like a character in a play as she becomes incorporated into the institution, now dressed in dowdy sweaters and watching golf on TV with Aubrey. Grant endures the tortured circumstance of supporting his wife as she becomes a stranger to him.
So many earnest, young indie filmmakers seem incapable of making films outside of their peer group. It is therefore testament to the extraordinary sensitivity the 28-year-old Polley possesses that she chose to take on a project centered on people so unlike her in age and circumstance.
Especially impressive is how expertly Polley handles this adaptation of an Alice Munro short story with the kind of artfulness and feeling more reminiscent of the human aches and barren landscapes of Paul Schrader and Atom Egoyan than any director her own age. (Egoyan, an executive producer of the film, also directed Polley in Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter.)
Polley's use of diffused white light adds to the emotional devastation of the film, imbuing the events with the otherworldly glow of an afterlife on earth, a sense that Fiona and Grant are occupying a kind of extraterrestrial way station. Polley is attuned to the complicated psychology that underpins long-term marriages: a history of disappointment, anger and guilt that invests the couple's behavior with a fair amount of melancholy and impacted grief. All of this lies beneath the more obvious air of devotion.
Pinsent is a brilliantly flinty and sensual actor, but Away from Her is, in the end, Julie Christie's film. At 66, her age is almost irrelevant in the light of her incandescent beauty. It's as delicate and bright as a seashell and the prickly, unique force of her still-ferociously idiosyncratic temperament. Christie's presence adds an extratextual resonance to the film.
Affecting in a universal sense for rendering the painful loss of a loved one to old age, Away from Her burrows beneath your skin for other reasons, too, like watching this spirited, life force of an actress contending with mortality. Along with Peter O'Toole and Charlotte Rampling, Christie reveals that singular melancholy of a great beauty faded, but also reveals something enduring and glowing inside of old age. Christie is a beloved actress not because she is merely beautiful, but because she brings the full measure of her humanity so visibly to bear on her film roles.
The mere thought of losing that presence, that light, feels as intimate a loss as that of a loved one.