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Away From Her: Poignant But Not Sappy

I went into the Away From Her movie screening with a stack of tissues, fully prepared to bawl my eyes out over this story about a marriage being tested by Alzheimer's. Yet the sobfest never happened. The story is mostly sad, it's true, but it is also realistically told and casts an unapologetic light on each character. So while there is great sympathy for them, the movie never cycles through devastation to rest on being trite. This is a relief — not to mention a difficult balance to strike for a first-time director like Sarah Polley.

The luminous Julie Christie plays Fiona, a woman who appears to be developing Alzheimer's disease at a surprisingly young age. Her husband Grant (Gordon Pinset) is reluctant to admit this despite Fiona's inability to remember the word for "wine," and lapses of memory which cause her to wander the streets of the town they've lived in for 20 years. Fiona insists on being admitted to a home for Alzheimer's patients, presumably because she read a book explaining how difficult Alzheimer's patients can be when living with their spouses. The drama picks up once Fiona goes to live at the home, however, so

At the home Fiona becomes attached to a wheelchair-bound man named Aubrey (Michael Murphy) whom she adores because he doesn't expect her to remember things, and because he needs her. When her husband comes to visit, she is polite but vaguely annoyed that he is taking time away from her new relationship. As time goes by, Fiona forgets more and more of her life with her husband, and builds a new life with Aubrey. Grant befriends Aubrey's wife Marion (Olympia Dukakis), and during his painful visits to the home he finds support in a kindhearted attendant Kristy (Kristen Thomas), who provides a basis of logic about what is happening to Grant's wife.

The wintry Canadian landscape provides incredible beauty (pink sunsets, snow-covered cottages, etc.) and a chilling quietude, at once familiar and coldly ominous. In addition to directing the film, Polley wrote the screenplay based on a short story she read while visiting Iceland. The writing is superb not only in character development and story arc, but in its poetic dialogue. Lines like these leap from the screen as perhaps the short story leapt out at Polley: "Sometimes there's something delicious in oblivion," and "People want to be in love every single day — what a liability!"

Away From Her is largely a showcase for the female characters, and it is this that makes the movie so compelling and so complex. Grant is a central character but essentially fades away amidst so many intriguing women. Whenever people lament the lack of "meaty" women's roles in film today I will be thrilled to suggest this movie.

Photos courtesy of Lionsgate

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