Away from Her (*** 1/2)

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Grant and Fiona have been married 44 years, and live alone in a cabin somewhere in the Canadian wilderness. They are still deeply in love, sweet to each other, inseparable, and live what seems like an idyllic life. One night, as they clean the kitchen, Fiona puts a frying pan in the freezer, and from that moment on, everything changes.The idea of a love story involving Alzheimer’s disease is intriguing in part because, since memory is so closely tied to the idea of romance (remembering your first date, first kiss or wedding day) that you wonder what would happen if memory went away. Would your wife still love you if she didn’t really know who you were? Sarah Polley’s feature film directorial debut, Away from Her, dares to answer these questions in a film that is beautiful, sad, haunting and uplifting, without ever becoming a manipulative tear-jerker.

Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent play Fiona and Grant, in two of the most powerful performances of 2007, and their work helps elevate a film that is already relentlessly effective. Eventually, it is decided that perhaps Fiona should stay, for a time, at a nursing home. Grant refuses, stating that he could not be without her. After Fiona wanders off on a skiing trip and is found by Grant several hours later, he realizes that she may be right.

If you haven’t yet read the other reviews or seen any previews, I will let you enjoy the rest of the plot, as it’s hard to describe much more without ruining it. I will say that the script, also by Polley, is a masterwork, as I really felt that these characters’ whole histories were contained in this 110 minute movie. By the end of the film, it felt like I really knew this people.

The other main characters in the film are all well-cast. Michael Murphy plays Aubrey, a mute fellow patient of Fiona’s who comes to depend on her as well, and Murphy’s performance is a marvel of subtleness. Olympia Dukakis gives her best performance in many years as Aubrey’s wife, Marian, who Grant comes to for some advice. Kristen Thomson plays Kristy, a nurse at the home who becomes a confidant to Grant, and it’s refreshing to see a good part written for a nurse, for a change.

Julie Christie was nominated for her phenomenal work here, and she deserves the nomination, but without a nomination also for Gordon Pinsent, it seems like a bittersweet victory. The film’s main narrative follows things more from Grant’s point of view, since as Fiona’s memory fades, her grip on reality will fade to, and the emotional core would be harder to convey on film. As Grant says, he cannot imagine life without Fiona. The film is not really about how he manages without her, but rather how he comes to terms with the fact that he might have to.

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