With its sharp images, clear light and airy, uncluttered compositions, Away From Her looks and feels Canadian, truly Canadian and it’s beautiful. Julie Christie won all the awards, and she is marvellous, managing to make virtue and integrity seem multi-faceted and sensual; but the revelation for me is Gordon Pinsent; that sad, healthy face, the face of Canada, weary, trying to do the right thing, not always succeeding and feeling guilty about it all because he senses it all springs from privilege. Pinsent has a kind and loving face, one that still gazes at Julie Christie with longing after forty five years of marriage, even after, especially after, she re-discovers an old beau at the retirement home.
Let’s go back to the plot. It’s simple. Fiona Anderson (Julie Christie) is getting forgetful, is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and makes the decision to go into a home. Her husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent) protests, tries to change her mind but bows to the inevitable. In the home, she slowly begins to lose her mind. Worse, she meets Aubrey (Michael Murphy), an old beau. Grant begins to question Fiona’s feelings for him during the course of their marriage, even though he was the one who had strayed, often and happily; yet, even in those moments of doubt, he loves her and tries to make her life as easy as it can be under the circumstances. When Aubrey is removed from the home because it’s gotten too expensive for his wife to keep up the payments, Grant does his best to get him to return. This is how he meets Marian (Olympia Dukakis), Aubrey’s wife. She gets him to pretend that he cares for her, even though she knows his true objective is to re-unite her husband with his wife, a prospect she initially finds shocking. In the end, by doing the selfless thing, Grant in turn gets the prospect of some joy and happiness himself.
The film is based Alice Munro’s great short story, ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’. In ‘What Makes You So Sure You’re Not the Evil One Yourself’, Jonathan Franzen’s fascinating essay on Munro, he uses that very short story as an example of why Munro is such a great writer. After a lengthy quote from the passage recounting the meeting between Grant and Marian, he writes: ‘I want to keep quoting, and not just little bits but whole passages, because it turns out that what my capsule summary requires, at a minimum, in order to do justice to the story – the “things within things,” the interplay of class and morality, of desire and fidelity, of characters and fate – is exactly what Munro herself has already written on the page. The only adequate summary of the text is the text itself’. The film makes you feel a little bit like that as well.
Away From Her is directed with great restraint, simplicity and skill by Sarah Polley. It looks like a TV movie but conveys the depth and complexity of feeling of a great work. I found it very moving.