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Away from Her (2006)

by on 2011/07/23

“You always said that there ought to be one place that you knew about, you thought about, and maybe even longed for, but you never did get to see.”

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About a month ago, I was asked to cover a charity event for Alzheimer’s support at a local seniors home. I didn’t think anything unusual about it at the time. I got directions, packed the gear, found the parking, and set things up. After the initial placement of the camera on its tripod, all settings checked and re-checked, there really wasn’t much to do, so I followed the presentations.

As a way to convey the impact on a typical family, a few of the speakers recounted details of their trials. While each was very compelling in their own unique way, I was struck by their differing experiences. One caregiver said she could live with the burden because her afflicted husband evidenced a soul. Another said something quite different, that the task was hard to bear, because it was nothing but constant exertion with no reward.

A part of me demanded: how could the two be reconciled? Was it as simple as faith, or something else, this inconsistency?

Away from Her brought that debate back to me, yet offered no easy answers, which may be as it should be in depicting a trying reality. It was hard for me to imagine writer/director Sarah Polley putting me in such a neoreal position.

First known to me as the star of Ramona and Road to Avonlea, she has appeared in many movies over the years: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Exotica, Last Night, eXistenZ, Go, Dawn of the Dead (2004), Slings and Arrows, and Splice. None of her work in this impressive selection prepared me for her directorial debut.

An adaptation of a story by Canadian author Alice Munro, the film chronicles the twilight phase of a 44-year marriage. Retired teacher Grant Anderson (Gordon Pinsent of the Red Green show) slowly learns to cope with his wife’s deterioration.

Julie Christie (Doctor Zhivago) portrays Fiona Anderson, a painfully honest victim as ruthless as self-aware. Rather than falling into the expected mire of depressed self-pity, she checks herself into the Meadowlake residence for sufferers of her condition.

Ironically, her husband does not adjust as readily to the change. He’d planned to spend their elder years doting to repay past affairs. Now he finds that path of repentance denied. His difficulties in accepting and adapting comprise the bulk of their scenes.

While Julie Christie is justly lauded for the performance of her role, Pinsent’s struggle with equanimity is fascinating to watch. He shows his strain in the lengthening pauses, the struggles to find a punchline and, composure spent, an outburst of profanity. To be frank, I’d always thought of him as “that guy who looks like DeForest Kelley”. His subtlety here is a revelation to me.

I was less impressed, initially, with Olympia Dukakis, as well as Wendy Crewson, in smaller parts. Dukakis plays the wife of another Alzheimer’s patient, and Crewson is the facility’s manager. My early opinions were formed by their intense abrasiveness. Nonetheless, in time, I accepted their perspectives. Polley avoids the demonization of either character, giving them valid reasons for coping as they do.

She also brings a similar complexity to production, employing style to reflect the character experiences. Extended plot lines are scattered apart, marked by alternating threads. Structurally speaking, we move back and forth in space, in time, in reality. Visually, it’s elegantly crafted, with picturesque compositions, subtle motions, and gradual transitions. The pace feels oddly suspenseful, not shuffling.

One particular scene underscored this sense of poignant dread. Grant sits in a cafeteria, watching an afternoon pass. Eventually, the visitors fade, leaving patients on their own. It’s neither a comforting vision of support, nor of the future.

If pressed to any point of upset — subject matter notwithstanding — I’d have to mention the grainy flashback stock. I found the “rainbow” static as distracting as artificial. Surely Christie and Pinsent have access to older shots of themselves? Wouldn’t such photos or footage be less of a shock than dissimilar casting? I’d like to hope the effect is intentional, suggesting the quirks of memory.

Whatever the intent, the outcome’s no less successful. It reminded me often of an old refrain: death is most difficult for its survivors. I wondered how the caregivers I’d heard might react in seeing this piece.

Of course, I should only speak for myself. And for my part I absolutely believe that, with Away from Her, Sarah Polley has breathed life into something more important, affecting, and lasting than an entire series of Splices.

* * * * *

Rated PG for adult situations and language

100 minutes

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