"Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! It is an ever-fixed mark ... "
-- William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116
Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie) have been married for 44 years; they read and cook and laugh and walk with the kind of long-shared, hard-fought joy that most of us can only imagine. Their love is a commitment, a shared process, integral to each of their selves. And one of them is slowly, sadly, slipping away. Fiona's not merely forgetful; she's confused, lost, dwindling ... and, horrifyingly, aware of exactly what's happening as Alzheimer's clots her brain with plaques and tangled neurons like hardened roots strangling the life from the tree they've nurtured. Hard decisions must be made; those will lead to even harder decisions. Directed by actress Sarah Polley (The Sweet Hereafter, Dawn of the Dead), Away from Her was adapted from an Alice Munro story by Polley herself; it's an astonishingly moving feature-length directorial debut. It manages to get fresh, bold performances from seasoned veterans Christie and Pinsent.
It also turns what could have been mawkish, rote TV-movie-of-the-week material into a truly engaging drama. Away from Her is that rarest kind of romantic drama -- one that doesn't infer that turning off your brain is the toll to be paid for letting your heart be moved. Fiona makes the decision to enter a permanent care home; it's for the best, she knows. Grant is heartbroken and especially torn over the care home's policy of 'no visitors' for the first 30 days so that new residents might settle into a new routine without confusion. When he returns, Fiona doesn't really seem to know who he is and has made close friends with fellow resident Aubrey (Michael Murphy), whose temporary stay in the facility has coincided with Fiona's first 30 days.
Polley, working from Munro's story, captures the kind of true knowing that can only come with decades of true intimacy -- how a sweater pattern can represent a betrayal, or how a quick joke can soothe and sting. And Christie never descends into show-off hysterics or wall-eyed lunacy; Fiona is a striking and vital woman, and even bereft of some of her reason, what she was shines through the dying sunset of her self. Pinsent is a national treasure in Canada, but has rarely appeared in films in America; given what may be his biggest and best shot at a true lead performance at age 77, he delivers in every scene. Grant is not perfect, was not perfect, will not be perfect. But he is trying, and we can see that -- and what it costs -- in every one of his scenes.
Polley and her production team have made a sincere, realistic drama that captures the hard-yet-beautiful winter light of Canada in play across the faces and places of the action. Olympia Dukakis makes what could have been a lesser part into a fully-rounded character with a few deft strokes; she's Aubrey's wife, and is reluctant to hear Grant's request for Aubrey to return to the home, albeit briefly, because by Grant's reasoning, Aubrey at least got her out of bed and engaged with her ever-narrowing world. Kristen Thompson plays a young nurse who becomes Grant's confidant and conscience and never lets a scene or line of dialogue pass without a real, vital sense of who this woman is, dispensing sage advice during smoke breaks in the Ontario snow.
There's humor in Away from Her, as well; Fiona gets off a wicked crack early on that speaks to the same gallows comedy anyone who's ever stifled a laugh in a hospital knows. One of the residents of the home used to be the play-by-play man for the Winnipeg Jets, now walking the corridors announcing his daily life: "There's an elevator on the right, and we're heading down the hall. ..." But the humor never comes at the expense of the characters and Polley's commitment to drama and the story. Nor, for that matter, does the tragedy. During a medical interview, Fiona's asked what she would do if she saw a fire break out in a movie theater . She tries to cover her confusion with a dismissal: "Oh, we don't go to the movies much, do we, Grant? All those multiplexes showing American garbage. ..." The line may be a dig at Hollywood disease-depictions like The Notebook, where James Garner and Gena Rowlands earn a moment's respite from Alzheimer's through the miracle of wooden dialogue.
But more importantly, that moment of Fiona's shows a woman -- a woman with tastes, ideas and love for her husband -- trying, failing, to hide from herself and everyone around her that she's inexoriably, irrevocably slipping away from the world she's found so much joy and true love in. Shakespeare wrote that love's not love which alters, but anyone who's been in love -- for real, for the long haul, and for good -- can tell you that the sonnet just isn't so. Now and then love changes because it has to. Now and then it changes because people change. Away from Her is a truly romantic film, and it moves us because it knows the cruel, beautiful fact that how much love and life give us is often matched by how much they can cost.