“Away from Her” (2006) is a rare film about Alzheimer’s disease, and in my opinion, one of the best. As a film adaptation of the talented Alice Munro’s short story, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” Sarah Polley’s film already had a strong foundation and does great justice to Munro’s storytelling ability. We meet Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie), a couple living in Canada who have been married for over a (mostly) wonderful 40 years and remained inseparable through all of them. They go cross country skiing almost daily in their cabin and read to one another by the firelight. But then we learn that Fiona has Alzheimer’s, and that while she’s not quite at the point of forgetting who Grant is, she’s started labeling the kitchen drawers. Before the viewer is even 20 minutes into the film, Fiona makes the decision to check herself into a care facility.
“…Fiona has Alzheimer’s, and while she’s not quite at the point of forgetting who Grant is, she’s started labeling the kitchen drawers.”
Away from Her looks Alzheimer’s in the eye with a gaze that is empathetic, but doesn’t get lost swimming in its own moments of pity or awe. It’s a film about struggle, but more so a film about strength. Grant, who has never been apart from Fiona for very long, has to respect the center’s policy of having no contact with the patient who has just checked in for the first month of their stay. When he returns, he finds Fiona slipping farther away from him — and closer to another male patient, Aubrey (Michael Murphy). One afternoon a teenager asks Grant who he’s visiting, and he points to Fiona, who is trying to help Aubrey finish his dessert. “You’re visiting that couple over there?” she asks. It’s one of many tough blows Grant will receive throughout the film, and he takes it with an admirable, though imperfect, amount of grace.
Away from Her looks Alzheimer’s in the eye with a gaze that is empathetic, but doesn’t get lost swimming in its own moments of pity or awe. It’s a film about struggle, but more so a film about strength.
With its love-triangle plot and a cast of almost too-attractive actors (ex. the ever-glowing Julie Christie), it would have been easy to let Away from Her fall prey to more saccharine, Nicholas Sparks tropes. Instead, we are given a delicate film that knows when to induldge in its own heartbreak, and when to focus on the often ignored elements of Alzheimer’s disease in films: relationships with caregivers and their struggles as well as the politics of care facilities themselves. This isn’t a film that uses Alzheimer’s as a convenient springboard for Hollywood drama, but a film that wants to examine the memory loss disease’s reality in its entirety. That means the relationships visitors strike up with one another as well as with the caregivers: the importance of togetherness, of moving forward, and of realizing that patience sometimes needs a community to uphold it.
Away from Her is a beautiful film, but most importantly, it is one that is gracefully self-aware.
Watch the trailer below.