Alzheimer's Early Stages:
First Steps for Families, Friends and Care-Givers
by Daniel Kuhn
(In Hardcover from Amazon)
"Away From Her"
This treatment of a marriage falling under the disrupting effects of memory loss due to the wasting disease known as Alzheimer's is, more than anything, an homage to devotion. It comes from the pen of first-time feature screenwriter and director, Canadian actress Sarah Polley, who plays no part in front of the lens. Her screenplay is an adaptation from author Alice Munro's short story, "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," about a couple coming to grips with the particular effects of memory loss on their 50-year very close relationship.
As it becomes more evident and denial is no longer a viable option for these two intelligent people, Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie) face the prospect of her being committed to an institution. Of the two, Fiona, the victim, is the one who's clearest on this point, while Grant is willing to put it off and take care of her at home. Aggravating that preference is the policy of the care facility that he will not be permitted to visit her for the first 30 days, a period for her to "settle in" to her new surroundings and fellow patients as explained by company witch (Wendy Crewson) with all due officiousness.
His concern over this proves prescient when the month is over. He goes for his first visit with flowers in hand and joy in his heart, eager to make up for the lost time away from his wife. But what he discovers freezes him. Fiona not only doesn't remember who he is, but she has taken up with a new "friend," Aubrey (Michael Murphy), a recalcitrant man who has become much more socially cooperative under the attention she lavishes on him.
The suspicion is that this disconnection with Grant is a possibly not conciously-intended punishment for a marital infraction that occurred years before and which Fiona has never forgiven. Be that as it may, the movie concentrates on the pain of adapting to new circumstances in the case of a thoroughly devoted husband.
It's not the stuff of serious commercial potential nor the compelling interest of the mainstream. This is strictly arthouse fare with special emphasis on Lifetime programming, and more European in its character study tedium than an American product might be. It's a slow amd steady study of a man and his situation with fine performances, a meandering pace, and an adequate directorial style. It reveals Polley's inherent taste for the "deep," and the "untapped" subjects among humanity themes but, then, this preference isn't something she's hidden with her fine body of work.
Pinsent plays a man who is more noble than his character would admit to. Though he plays it with the occasional touch of eloquence crafted on the stage, he keeps it down-to-earth and more than a little lugubrious. The perhaps more demanding role is the victim of the piece which Christie fills with all the confusion and complexity written into it, while maintaining an indestructible tone of class and style. "She's a lady," someone remarks with obvious admiration for Christie's demeanor.
My own respect applies (despite a truly awkward title). Polley's debut film is sensitive, relevant, thought provoking. But it's sort of like a macho father throwing his son into the pool in lieu of adequate preparation, forcing the boy to breathe in a drowning environment.
With more admiration for it than willing engagement, Polley's film made me feel like I'd been immersed into a film environment more painful than dramatic. In the end, it's not a terribly creative presentation of the disease -- more a vehicle for an emerging director and a well-deserved fan following for a splendid actress. But I'd just as soon seek such material out in TV land when I'm more in the mood and less inclined to be irreverent.
On the other hand, Canadian songstress K.D. Lang's rendering of Neil Young's "Helpless" behind the end titles is a reward all its own. While no one will deliver this song with more haunting ache than its author, Lang brings her own power of heartfelt tonal depth to it. Be prepared to stay in your seat (or on your couch) to the bitter end.
~~ Jules Brenner