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Away From HerAway from Her
a review by Tom Condon, OP

Early in Away from Her is the image of a woman in her sixties cross country skiing across a snow-covered field in Canada.  As she moves closer into view, I recognized the woman as the great actress, Julie Christie.  I immediately thought of her in Doctor Zhivago, 40 years ago, as the beautiful young Lara walking through the snow.  As much as anything else, Away from Her is a celebration of Ms. Christie’s great beauty and screen presence, from the young beauty of 40 years ago, to her current role as Fiona, a woman slipping into Alzheimer’s.

In Away from Her, Fiona and her husband, Grant (Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent) face the difficult decisions encountered by many families today.  Fiona begins to show signs of Alzheimer’s:  after washing and drying a frying pan, she stores it in the freezer; she is unable to remember names of persons and objects; she becomes lost while walking.  Fiona and Grant begin to explore care facilities.  Fiona makes the difficult decision to move into one.  Grant remarks they not been apart for forty years.  Fiona remarks that the decision will not be easy, but asks for the grace to make the transition as well as possible.

When Fiona moves into the facility, no one is allowed to visit her for 30 days, in order for her to make the adjustment.  When Grant is able to visit her, he finds that Fiona has become attached to Aubrey, a man at the facility who is in a wheelchair, unable to speak.  Fiona becomes Aubrey’s constant companion, helping him play cards and eat at table.  Grant visits daily, and the pain and confusion is plain in his face.  Fiona will speak to him, but it is unclear whether she recognizes Grant as her husband, or just a nice man who comes to visit.  She will only leave Aubrey for short periods of time.

One day, Grant arrives at the facility to find Fiona depressed in her room.  He discovers that Aubrey has been taken home from the facility by his wife Marian (Olympia Dukakis) because they can no longer afford the facility.  Grant visits Marian at her house to ask her to bring Aubrey back, in order to help Fiona, who is retreating into herself.  After a first tense meeting, Grant and Aubrey begin to see each other more often for support and friendship.

Away from Her explores the unexpected challenges that face couples in their senior years.  I do a lot of work with couples preparing for marriage.  I think this will be a good movie for them to see to reflect on the ways their lives may change over the years.  It’s one thing to talk about love and commitment when the couple is young, healthy, and has their life ahead of them.  What will love and commitment mean when one has to put his/her spouse in an Alzheimer’s facility?  Could they, like Grant, continue to visit, day after day, not really knowing if the woman with whom he shared 40 years even knows who he is?  How does Grant find support, dealing with his loneliness and guilt?

As with life, Away from Her leads us in unexpected places, dealing with the complexities of relationships and the meaning of love and commitment.  It is a thoughtful film, beautifully acted, and as far as you can get from summer blockbusters with all their promotional gimmicks as one could get. 

I did have some minor problems with the film.  I questioned the facility’s policy of not allowing new residents any contact with the outside world for 30 days.  I have never heard of this; perhaps it is standard practice.  I also had problems with the way the administrator and nurses talked about patients, especially those on the second floor of the facility for those who had advanced cases of Alzheimer’s.  In some of their scenes with Grant, they display little empathy, and lack professional judgment in the way they talked about advanced patients.  Although I have little experience with Alzheimer’s patients, I have been in many assisted care and nursing facilities, and have never heard professionals talk to families of patients in the way these women did.  Away from Her is also slow moving at times. 

Despite these minor reservations, young writer-director Sarah Polley shows a wisdom and sensitivity well beyond her years in this thoughtful film. 

Tom Condon, OP

The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 -- parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

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