Actress Sarah Polley shows considerable skill as a writer and director with her first feature, a sensitive study of a couple torn apart by Alzheimer’s based on a short story by Alice Munro. But while “Away from Her” is adroitly made, and very well acted by the luminous Julie Christie and the lesser-known but in many ways even more impressive Gordon Pinsent, it doesn’t entirely escape the feel of a very good television tearjerker.
When we’re introduced to Fiona and Grant Anderson (Christie and Pinsent), they’re an active older couple cross-country skiing the wintry neighborhood of their Canadian home. But it soon becomes clear that her memory is failing, and she concludes it’s time for her to go into a nursing home, despite Grant’s reluctance over the month-long separation the facility requires from relatives of new residents.
When the thirty days are finally up, Grant arrives at the home expecting a warm welcome, but instead finds Fiona strangely distant and devoted to another resident, the mute, wheelchair-bound Aubrey (Michael Murphy), with whom she’s struck up a relationship of co-dependence. It seems, in fact, that while pleasant and controlled, she might not recognize Grant at all. He feels quietly rejected, even a mite jealous over his wife’s solicitous attitude toward Aubrey. And he suspects that she might be feigning her forgetfulness as a way of taking revenge on him for his long-ago infidelity (he’s a former academic, and apparently once strayed with a student).
The remainder of “Away from Her” is really the story of Grant’s continuing devotion to Fiona even in the face of her emotional detachment from him. There’s an especially affecting moment when a punkish young woman, reluctantly visiting a relative one day, strays over to a couch where Grant is seated, watching his wife and Aubrey together at a nearby table, and, taking him for a patient, mentions how sad it must be not to have any visitors himself. (The conversation that follows is brief, but as affecting as anything else in the picture.) Grant goes so far as to approach Aubrey’s wife Marian (Olympia Dukakis) after she’s taken her husband home for financial reasons, to ask her to return Aubrey to the facility to raise the dejected Fiona’s spirits.
This material could easily have descended into mawkishness, but Polley’s touch is sufficiently sure to circumvent the pitfalls and avoid sentimentality while revealing the characters’ emotional lives. She’s chosen her cast wisely. Christie, still lovely after years of relative absence from the screen, conveys the poignancy of Fiona’s deterioration while maintaining her dignity, and both the steely Dukakis and the pathetic Murphy manage their scenes with skill. So does Kristen Thomson, as a kindly but clear-eyed nurse. But the actor who carries the film is really Pinsent, who captures both Grant’s wounded pride and his gentle nobility. On the technical level “Away from Her” is functional rather than spectacular, but Luc Pontpellier’s cinematography is clean and David Wharnsby’s editing reasonably crisp.
“Away from Her” may be seen as a sort of gender-reversal of the “On Golden Pond” formula, but the comparison wouldn’t be apt. Straightforward but not detached, touching but not maudlin, it’s an honestly moving, if modest, portrait of a marriage affected by a terrible wasting disease.