It's hard to believe this film is Canadian actress Sarah Polley's directorial debut. A quiet though emotionally wrenching affair set in the striking snowy landscapes of Ontario, it deals with the impact of Alzheimer's on a married couple. Not what might be expected of a twenty-something rookie, but it's a personal film for Polley, whose own grandmother had the disease. And in appearance, superficially at least, the movie recalls nothing so much as the octagenarian Swede Ingmar Bergman's later domestic dramas.
Julie Christie plays Fiona, 40-odd years into a seemingly happy marriage to Grant (Gordon Pinsent). Early scenes depict the gradual deterioration of Fiona's condition, when she's confused or forgetful, followed by periods of clarity. The couple taking things in their stride, until one night, she goes missing and Grant drives out to find her lost and bewildered in the cold, looking absently over a bridge. They decide to address the problem.
When Fiona is checked into a home specialising in Alzheimer sufferers, they are told that patients find it easier to adjust to their new surroundings if they spend the first 30 days without contact from their partner. After initial protests, Grant agrees, only to find that when he does visit his wife for the first time, she has befriended fellow patient Aubrey (Michael Murphy), a wheelchair-bound mute, and that Fiona treats her husband as if he were a stranger. Meanwhile Aubrey becomes increasingly dependent on her.
Sarah Polley adapted Alice Munro's short story The Bear Came Over the Mountain for the film, and her treatment shows incredible sensitivity. The casting of Julie Christie is a masterstroke. Well into her sixties and still radiant, she is effortlessly elegant and dignified as Fiona prior to going into the home, and though we see her taking less care of her appearance as the story develops, she's quite clearly a middle-aged woman amongst elderly people. A bored teenage visitor asks Grant who he's come to see. "The beautiful one", he says reflectively. When he notices Fiona wearing an unfamiliar, brightly-coloured cardigan belonging to another patient, he complains to a nurse that "it's vulgar", unable to let go of his own image of his wife.
Gordon Pinsent as Grant too, is excellent. His anxiety as his wife drifts ever away from him is obvious, but there are no histrionics. When he takes books in to read to Fiona in the hope of sparking memories in her, she invariably ushers him out with some haste, politely but coldly. You keenly feel all the weight of his hurt as they become strangers to one another. While Grant accepts his wife's wishes as she goes into the home, the almost immediate impact on their marriage leaves him unprepared and struggling to cope. Inter-cut scenes where Grant talks with Aubrey's wife, played by Olympia Dukakis, show that she has long accepted her own marriage is, to all intents and purposes, in the past.
Away From Her is an important film - one that ought to be seen. If it appears on the face of it relentlessly maudlin, that isn't the case. There are many moments of real warmth, and believe it or not, even a couple of laugh-out-loud scenes, amongst the complex emotions. A superior directorial bow.