I do not remember if the word "Alzheimers" is even mentioned in "Away from Her," although its utterance is not necessary to understand what is happening with Fiona (Julie Christie). When she put the frying pan in the freezer, where it is dutifully retrieved by her husband, Grant (Gordon Pinsent), we know the situation, even without seeing the PSA for fighting the dastardly diseases that plays at the start of this DVD. Fiona has taken to wandering away, unable to find her way back home, and Grant cannot watch her every minute. Since that is the sort of attention she needs as the disease progresses (captured in a painful moment at a dinner party where Fiona struggles to remember what is in the bottle she holds in her hand), Grant must find a home in which to place his wife of nearly 50 years. He chooses Meadowlake.
When Grant brings Fiona to Meadowlake the first of two flaws that affect my response to "Away from Her" moves the story forward. Meadowlake has a policy that new residents cannot have neither visitors nor phone calls during the first 30-days of their stay. Now, I fully understand why such a policy makes sense if you are dealing with somebody sent to prison or checking into a rehab clinic, but at a home for the elderly that pays attention to people suffering from Alzheimer's? It would be hard to come up with something crueler. Your mind is starting to betray you and you move away from the home you have known for decades into a strange new place, and you cannot see your family and friends? No wonder when Grant arrives a month later his beloved wife thinks that he is just a new resident of the home.
This "policy" is ultimately a plot contrivance to arrive at just this situation, with the added insult to injury that Fiona has apparently transferred her affections to Aubrey (Michael Murphy), another one of the residents at Meadowlake. Aubrey is mute and has trouble getting around, but Fiona is constantly attentive to his every need. Clearly taking care of him makes her happy, but we cannot help but see the irony that Aubrey no more acknowledges Fiona that she acknowledges Grant on what are becoming daily visits. For Grant the situation is unacceptable, but with Fiona's condition there does not seem to be anything that he can do about it, and that is what serves as the film's ultimate conflict.
This 2006 Canadian film is based on Alice Munro's short story, "The Bear Came Over the Mountain." It is faithfully adapted to the screen by Sarah Polley in the actress' first feature film as director. Polley has assembled a solid cast to tell this tale. Christie is still radiant, and any attempt to make her look haggard can never fully succeed once you see her eyes. Pinsent brings a sense of restraint to both his pain and his resolve in dealing with this cruel twist of fate that life has dealt him (one of my favorite scenes takes place between Grant and a teenager forced to come visit somebody at the home by her family). In contrast, Olympia Dukakis as Marian brings a harsh dose of reality to both Grant and the story. Despite the stupid policy that creates the film's tragic situation, Meadowlake is a fine place for Fiona to be, personified by Kristy (Kristen Thomson), one of those angels that you pray would be taking care of your loved one.
The performances perfectly match the delicate situation, but for me there is a second flaw in this film in what happens between Grant and Marian. That is because it takes away some of the grace from the film's moving final scene and changes Grant's motivation from what I would want it to be into something much less noble. At one point I was thinking that it would be better if Marian did not have the specific relationship she has to another character in this story, but without that reason Grant would never have cause to seek her out (certainly he would not meet her by happenstance). Even with these flaws this is a touching film, so clearly these are not fatal flaws, but they still prevent me from rounding up on "Away from Her," even with the stellar performances by the principles.