What will haunt this movie, regardless of how good it is, is that it’s an issue movie. It’ll be referred to as “that Alzheimer’s movie.” They used to call this type of film “disease of the week,” which suggests both a certain cheapness and a too-easy play for your sympathy.
But it’s unfair to judge a movie by its genre; each movie should be judged on its merits, and Away from Her is a decent, respectable little film, with actress Sarah Polley making her writing and directing debut.
Two Roads Diverged
The movie follows an older couple, Grant and Fiona (Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie) who cross-country ski together, following the same old ruts, leaving parallel tracks behind them. Their paths diverge, though, when it becomes clear that Fiona’s “senior moments” are not mere senility.
They both decide—but mostly Fiona—that she should move into a care facility and away from home. Fiona is decent enough to be doing it to ease the burden on Grant. Grant loves her enough to hate to see her go, but she wanders off in the snow, and leaves pots boiling on the stove, putting herself at risk.
The hardest part, they know, will be the first 30 days, during which Grant will not be allowed to visit. The home’s policy demands it so that Fiona can “settle in,” which made me wonder whether this was a convenient plot device or a standard industry practice.
Day 31 proves to be the beginning of the end: in their month apart, Fiona has found a new friend, Aubrey (Michael Murphy), to dote on, and the marital knot between her and Grant seems to have been untied.
Structure and Characters
The structure of the film is not as high-concept as Memento’s, but it’s similar. It has a fractured timeline that reveals certain facts up-front, and keeps certain motives and explanations mysterious until the end. The structure works well for this story about a malfunctioning brain without calling undue attention to itself.
The characters are refreshingly decent. In the first act, both partners think of the other’s best interests, weighing that against their mutually selfish desire to stay together. Throughout the film, even as the situation gets worse, all the characters remain good people. Nobody snaps.
Hound of the Baskervilles
I confess I was steeling myself for just such an occurrence. Before the movie, a friend told me she’d heard we might need Kleenex. When the movie ended, I felt both relieved and a little disappointed. I expected an emotionally devastating movie, and Away from Her didn’t deliver.
On the other hand, this well-to-do Canadian couple has the benefit of decent institutions and a lot of good information. Alzheimer’s is not easy for either of them, but things could be a lot worse. If they lived outside of a first-world country, or even in Canada more than twenty years ago, their lot in life would be even harder.
Only after leaving the theater did it occur to me that maybe the whole point of Away from Her was not to devastate the emotions of an audience. Maybe the point was that Alzheimer’s doesn’t have to lead to explosions, betrayals, and life-or-death situations. Maybe the point is to show that good people can cope with Alzheimers (or other feared diseases) without being destroyed by it.
If so, that’s a valuable message, even if it’s a little hard to hear at a multiplex.