Away From Her
How the hell do you shoot a movie in a nursing home? They’re flooded with light, decorated in puke-coloured pastels and filled with broken people drooling over their knits. When Sarah Polley brought Luc Montpellier (Sabah, The Saddest Music in the World) on board to craft the look of her feature debut, Away from Her, the cinematographer must have been shaking in his boots. The book-littered old cottage where Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie) share their post-retirement years would be no problem; neither would the vast expanses of wintery Ontario landscape where the couple go cross-country skiing. But the nursing home where Fiona is forced to live after she contracts Alzheimer’s—the film’s central location for its final two-thirds—that would be tricky.
In the end, Montpellier never solved the space. The aesthetic he ultimately cultivated is an artificial-looking, super-saturated one, with exterior light giving everyone and everything inside the home a lurid white sheen. Away from Her is an often painful film to look at. It’s a good thing that the writing and acting are phenomenal.
is about what happens when the early rush of love fades and something else develops in its place. It’s about the true meaning of faithfulness and the impossibility of letting go of the past. If this all sounds frightfully earnest, it is. But, you know, sometimes a little bit of earnest is okay. In an ironic age, the earnest filmmaker is often the one performing the most radical act.
After Fiona checks into a nursing home, she develops a tender relationship with Aubrey (Michael Murphy), a more infirm and dependent patient, and proceeds to forget her marriage. Heartbroken, Grant is ultimately forced to sit and watch as his wife drifts away from him. He brings books to jog her memory, but nothing seems to work. Regardless, he returns day after day. When Aubrey’s wife pulls him from the institution, Fiona grows depressed and begins to deteriorate physically. Desperately needing Fiona to recover, Grant approaches Aubrey’s wife (Olympia Dukakis), asking that she allow him to return to the institution.
If Polley couldn’t quite work out the film’s visuals, she more than compensates by summoning up gorgeous performances from her two leads. Pinsent perfectly captures the heartbreak of reconciling past love with contemporary, and crushing, reality. And Christie, for her part, expertly conveys the struggle of coping with creeping memory loss. The two veterans can induce tears in an audience without saying a word. While a good deal of the power of these scenes can be attributed to the strength of Polley’s script (adapted from Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”), Pinsent and Christie are the true heart of the movie.
It may not be the four-star masterpiece that many in the press are making it out to be. But Away from Her remains a powerful meditation on what love means in the twilight of our lives.