by RISHI AGRAWAL
Sometimes I wonder if critics are influenced by the history behind a film. Away From Her has a young director in her directorial debut (Sarah Polley) who was written a film based on an Alice Munro short story about an elderly couple dealing with Alzheimer’s. Polley pulls off this feat and puts together a touching film, which is enjoyable, but certainly no masterpiece. Obviously, the first critics who saw this film were possibly not expecting much, and were pleasantly surprised. When I watched the film, on the other hand, I already knew the critical buzz was very loud, and so it’s difficult not to be underwhelmed. As much as I would like to believe that I am completely objective about films and uninfluenced by my expectations, I suppose I have to give in at some point. So, I am throwing in the towel. I will blatantly admit that Away From Her, while a good movie, did not live up to my expectations. I am probably underrating it slightly as a result.
The film centers on a Canadian couple: Fiona (Julie Christie) and Grant (Gordon Pinset), who have been married 44 years. Fiona develops Alzheimer’s disease and starts losing her memory in random chunks. Realizing that Fiona’s condition will only deteriorate, both of them agree to check Fiona into a nursing home, which has a policy that patients cannot receive visitors for the first 30 days of their stay. When Grant finally comes to visit Fiona after those 30 days, he finds that she does not remember him and has befriended another resident, a wheelchair-bound gentleman named Aubrey (Michael Murphy).
The film manages to avoid melodrama. Christie and Pinset both put in fantastic performances infused with subtlety. Christie portrays Fiona with a certain child-like innocence and vacancy. However, the performance is not overdone and we still see there is some intelligence and charm left in Fiona. Pinset, on the other hand, had to remain steadfast and calm as Grant. Even when Grant is pushed to the breaking point, Pinset manages to convey Grant’s frustration without overplaying it.
The film only has a few problems, but for me, they are somewhat major. First of all, the dialogue is so obviously unnatural that it is difficult to take at points. I don’t always mind heightened speech from characters, but in this film, I wanted to be somewhat more grounded in reality. The other major problem I had with this film is that it was told out of chronological order for no particular reason. It seems that a lot of independent films do this these days, and the convention has gotten a little tiresome. I guess I just feel that films that are out of chronological order should be the exception rather than the rule. Another more minor point for me is that the film sometimes retreads the same ground. Many of the scenes where Grant visits Fiona in the nursing home have a certain sameness to them. We already know that Fiona is a little disturbed by Grant's presence. It does not add to the drama to find this out again.
The film, however, successfully dodges other pitfalls. It would have been easy for the film to show Grant as the devoted and long-suffering husband, but the film manages to avoid this instinct. Grant is no saint. The film hints that he has not been faithful during his entire marriage and Grant strikes up a friendship with Aubrey’s wife Marian (Olympia Dukakis), and goes on a couple dates with her. This is probably what separates this film from other stories about people with horrible diseases. In the end, the film is not simply about the disease, but about the lives of the characters.