First and foremost, this is the directorial debut of Polley. This is a major accomplishment in and of itself, but she also wrote the screenplay. Both are so understated, so low key, she almost appears to be filming real people as they go through the tribulations of their lives. She might have gotten away with this except for two things; she uses well-known actors and presents the story in a non-linear fashion.
Grant (Gordon Pinsent), a former college professor, and his wife, Fiona (Julie Christie), live in a lodge on a frozen lake in Canada. They enjoy each other and live their days of retirement with a lot of activity; cross country skiing is a particular favorite activity. Then, Fiona begins to have trouble remembering things and still other things confuse her. Grant recognizes this as well, but seems to think she will get better. Fiona is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and they face the news with their usual steadfastness. They don’t seem to talk about it much, but it haunts their activities and time together. Soon, the problem becomes too much and Fiona recognizes she will soon need to check into Meadowlark, a new facility for Alzheimer’s patients. There, she befriends Aubrey (Michael Murphy), a silent man who seems to respond to her attention and care. Grant is shaken by this and seems put off. Then, Aubrey is removed from the home and Fiona becomes bedridden. Grant travels to Aubrey’s home and meets his wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis). They form a friendship and Grant tries to figure out a why to help Aubrey return to the home, so his wife will become better, and also a way to forge a new life with his friend Marian.
It has been a while since I have seen Julie Christie on screen and she is, quite frankly a revelation. Always a beautiful woman, she has retained much of her beauty through her career and now seems both mature and beautiful. In an industry that relies so heavily on twenty something starlets, it is nice to see an actress of Christie’s caliber getting a really good, juicy role. Every time she is on screen, we see something about her character. When she is in a room with Grant, we see how she is confused by her new medical problem. Gradually, we see how they come to accept the problem. In the nursing home, she latches onto Aubrey as a sort of project, a way to keep her mind working, to keep as strong as possible. But there are also moments when the disease is winning. The combination of these moments helps to paint a picture of a strong woman who is more in turmoil because of her lack of strength and independence. She has been robbed of these things and seems unsure how to get them back.
She clearly loves Grant, but they have had their moments, and these show in their every interaction. As good as Christie is, Pinsent (whose background seems to be primarily as a guest star on various television series) is her equal. A former professor, he still retains the thought processes of an intellectual. Every time he is faced with something new, he stops, pauses and thinks the problem through. These include the few moments we watch as he has to deal with a new facet of his wife’s disease.
When he initially witnesses the relationship between his wife and her new friend, his face remains impassive, yet a number of emotions also seem to cross his features. I am not sure how this was accomplished, but it is particularly impressive. Is his wife having an affair? If she is, should he let it continue? Will it help her more than it hurts him?
Olympia Dukakis hasn’t been this good in years. As Marian, the wife of Aubrey, she is hardened, lonely and abrupt. It has been a struggle for her to care for her husband and then it is a financial struggle for her to keep him at Meadowlark. When Grant shows up at her door, she immediately blurts something out, unsure of his intentions. But then she realizes he simply wants to talk and warms up a little. But Marian could help stop all of the icecaps from melting, simply by looking at them. Then, as they get to know each other, she seems to realize if she participates in Grant’s life, she might not feel so lonely.
Michael Murphy is also great as Aubrey. He never speaks a word, confined to a wheelchair. Yet, he is able to demonstrate his character’s emotions and feelings for Fiona. When they are together, his eyes follow her around as she helps him play cards. When her attention diverts from him, he ‘drops’ his cards and she immediately returns to pick them up and help him out. It is a touching, believable performance.
Generally, films told in non-linear fashion turn me off. “Pulp Fiction”, “Go” and others are told in non-linear fashion and I loved them, but they are told in a more mainstream fashion. “Away From Her” is told in true non-linear style. As we watch, a series of scenes help depict Fiona and Grant’s relationship, their life together, their love, both in present day and the immediate past. Then, we see Grant dealing with the bureaucracy of Meadowlark and the decision to check his wife into the facility. He meets Marian and we learn she has brought Aubrey back home, yet, we just saw her husband and Fiona together at the home. This is the type of non-linear story presented with many different timelines happening concurrently on the screen. This is usually the type of non-linear film I can’t stand. But in “Her”, Polley uses this technique effectively. It just makes sense that we would watch the film in this fashion, because we are witnessing the story through the eyes of Fiona and Gordon, and their entire existence becomes about dealing with Fiona’s memory loss. As they work through various issues, they will remember snippets of information piecemeal. Things will come back in a non-chronological fashion. This helps to put us in the shoes of Gordon, and see the world through his eyes.
“Away From Her” is a remarkably accomplished film with some outstanding performances. Hopefully, it will break out of the independent film circuit and enjoy a wider audience. It deserves one.