Away From Her

The nominations:

  • Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role: Julie Christie
  • Adapted Screenplay: Sarah Polley

The Black-and-White:

This was a difficult film to watch.

It was a difficult because I have, through family members, personal experiences with Alzheimer’s and dementia, with nursing homes, and with the estrangement they create from loved ones and partners.

On the other hand, it would not have been a difficult film to watch had Sarah Polley not done such an excellent job with the writing (and directing, though not nominated), and Julie Christie were not so entirely convincing as the title character.

Here’s the synopsis:

As Fiona Anderson suffers the progressive effects of Alzheimer’s, her husband Grant fights to maintain their relationship in spite of Fiona’s increasing emotional distance. A month-long “no visitors” stay at a rest home leaves Fiona uncertain and confused in Grant’s company, and he is dismayed to learn that she has formed a close bond with another man who is also a patient at the facility.

The story is told with flashbacks interspersed to give the viewers a glimpse into Fiona’s (Julie Christie) life and her marriage to Grant (Gordon Pinsent) before her mind began to fail. We see the first early stumblings in Fiona’s memory, and her attempts to feel her way around the blind spots as the disease progresses. We also learn that there are old and unhealed wounds between Fiona and Grant.

The synopsis makes what happens after Fiona enters the nursing home seem much more intentional on Fiona’s part than what actually happens onscreen. In the film, you are never certain that Fiona knows who Grant is at all after the month apart (a practice that is common in nursing homes to help residents settle in). Thus, Fiona’s attachment to the other resident, while shocking to Grant, doesn’t seem calculated or even to fit within the category of infidelity, since she has no idea that she has any obligation to anyone else.

The irony of Alzheimer’s is that the person with the disease can move on and create a new life and a new routine quite apart from the partners and loved ones. And the partners and loved ones are stuck in limbo, as Grant is here — still carrying out his role as husband, and trying to connect with her through their shared past, even though Fiona has no recollection that she is a wife.

Christie has already won several awards for her performance (Golden Globe, many critics associations) and been nominated several times more (BAFTA, SAG, many others). She is the favorite to win, and certainly she is mesmerizing on the screen. But in many ways her performance was the easier of the two because she didn’t have to portray the conflict or confusion of dealing with a loved one who is hiding in plain sight.

Polley has already won the Writers Guild of Canada award for her screenplay, and her adaptation of Alice Munro’s short story is compassionate and insightful, particularly for someone so young. So far, we’ve only seen one other nominee in this category, and I think that Polley’s script was far superior in its dialogue, pacing, and depth.

Sadly, Pinsent was not nominated for his performance. It was a tough role to play, and his performance was nuanced and multi-faceted.

Also worth mentioning is Olympia Dukakis as the wife of the patient Fiona becomes attached to. She gave a wonderful, understated performance that captured both the devotion and frustration of being the partner of someone with Alzheimers.

It’s not a film that I would recommend to people whose family members or loved ones are currently dealing with Alzheimer’s or dementia, or even living in nursing homes apart from their spouses. It was a hard film to watch.

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