Away From Her
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Two sets of cross-country ski tracks wind their way across the Ontario countryside, a picture of Grant and Fiona's life together. In 44 years of marriage there have been some missteps, but their days of retirement are idealistically characterized by quiet and comfortable dinners, reading aloud together, and regular glides through the woods and fields surrounding their lake house.
Then one day, Fiona gets lost during a solo ski outing. Grant finds her walking home along the road, her skis abandoned in the woods. It's just one in a series of events that shows Fiona's memory is going. "Don't worry, darling," she tells her husband, "I expect I'm just losing my mind." That she is, and rapidly enough that the couple is soon discussing the local nursing home, Meadowlake. In the end, it's Fiona who decides to go there, so that Grant doesn't have to be her sole caregiver during her decline into Alzheimer's.
For 30 days, he's not allowed to see her. She needs the time to settle in, the home's director says. Grant makes it through that difficult month with the help of daily phone calls to a kind nurse named Kristy, who breaks the always-bad news about Alzheimer's to him as gently as possible. When he finally sees his wife again, Fiona's deterioration is evident. Grant's heart is broken when he realizes that she no longer recognizes him as her husband. Even worse, she's fallen in love with another Meadowlake patient, Aubrey, whom she knew as a teenager.
Aubrey is only a temporary resident of the nursing home, his wife, Marian, having left him there so she could have a vacation with her sister. When Marian returns and takes Aubrey home, Fiona is crushed. Torn between his desire to see his wife happy and his own hopelessness, Grant finds himself making choices he never imagined as he cares for the fading Fiona.
The title, Away From Her, references Grant's feelings about Fiona on the day she proposed marriage to him: "I took her up on it. I never wanted to be away from her. She had the spark of life." And for the most part, the film is a tale of marital love and the depth of feeling and commitment that grows out of decades of togetherness. With elements similar to Prelude to a Kiss, it showcases a husband's love for his wife that transcends her current state and remembers who she is inside.
That's not to say it's a wholly heartwarming movie. More often, Away From Her is a raw look at the pain that comes from losing a spouse. I count this a positive element because it's a more honest look at a more weighty subject than is found in most movies.
Fiona is thoughtful—nearly poetic—as she explains to Grant what it feels like to be losing her memory: "The thing is, half the time I wander around looking for something very pertinent, but I can't remember what it is." Later she says, "I think I may be beginning to disappear." Away From Her humanizes Alzheimer's for those whose lives have not been personally touched by the disease and arouses viewers' compassion for those who suffer from it—both the patients and their loved ones.
Once, when Grant is visiting Fiona at Meadowlake, he explains to a teenage visitor his deep love for his wife and his heartache over her affection for Aubrey. He reckons that the teen girl will find him pathetic, but the beauty of his love is not lost on her. The girl responds, "I should be so lucky." Twice, Fiona reminds Grant that he could have forsaken her, but he didn't, and she thanks him for that.
One book that Grant and Fiona read to learn about her disease advises, "Never let a person make you feel guilty for your anger with God." A line from another book reads, "The artist prays ever so gently."
While discussing Meadowlake, Grant complains that it's not ideal for Fiona. She responds, "I don't think we should be looking for something like that, Grant. I don't think we'll ever find that. I think all we can aspire to in this situation is a little bit of grace."
Kristy tells Grant about a church sign she saw that read, "It's never too late to become what you might have been." She says those words are "biblical-type stuff."
Twice, Grant and Fiona are shown in bed together; it's implied that they've just finished having sex. The sheets are pulled up so that only their shoulders, arms and faces are visible. Fiona knows it's going to be hard for him to leave her at Meadowlake, so she says, "I'd like to make love, and then I'd like you to go. Because I need to stay here and if you make it hard for me, I may cry so hard I'll never stop."
It's mentioned that in his younger years as a professor, Grant had affairs with his students. He wonders if Fiona's affection for Aubrey is her way of—consciously or subconsciously—punishing him for what he did. He also asks Kristy whether Fiona and Aubrey are sexually involved, and Kristy assures him that they're not—that Fiona's "a real lady."
Grant, on the other hand, still hasn't figured out what it means to be a real man. Seeking comfort in his distress, he ends up having sex with another woman while Fiona is in the nursing home. (They are also shown in bed afterwards, with just faces, shoulders and arms visible.)
Grant reads aloud to Fiona from a book that has very vague sexual imagery.
A reference is made to a student of Grant's who either killed herself or threatened to do so.
Frustrated that Fiona doesn't recognize him as her husband, Grant grabs both of her wrists and forces her to look him in the eyes while he reminds her who he is. Looking on, Aubrey is visibly upset by this encounter.
Crude or Profane Language
There are a couple of misuses of God's name. Two uses of "sucks." And four or five swear words. What the PG-13 rating doesn't tell you is that they're all f-words.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Grant and Fiona have wine with dinner. Marian drinks liquor from a brandy glass, and she smokes. Grant says he used to smoke. Kristy smokes several times during her conversations with Grant.
Other Negative Elements
The screening of Away From Her that I attended was preceded by a reception for the Alzheimer's Association of Colorado. Introducing the film, an association representative told us that one in 10 people over 65 have Alzheimer's and that half of those over age 85 do. The average person afflicted with the disease lives with it for eight to 12 years, but some have it for as long as 20. "You won't learn too much about the disease itself from this movie," she said, "but you will learn what it looks like to deal with it as a family."
I did, and I wept. It's one thing to imagine losing a spouse to death. It's another thing to try to grasp losing a spouse who's still alive—to think of spending five or 10 years caring for someone who once was your closest companion and now doesn't even recognize you. Away From Her goes to great lengths to paint a beautiful portrait of a husband's love for his wife in that situation.
And then it mars the emerging image with the equivalent of Magic Marker on top of oil.
Grant's adultery in the midst of his care for Fiona keeps the film from being the model it should have been. That act—and the moral relativism it highlights—was as unsettling in the negative sense as the rest of the film was in the positive. And it ultimately prevented me from embracing the resolution intended by the filmmakers. It frames a disappointing ending to what could have been a uniquely powerful film.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Julie Christie as Fiona; Gordon Pinsent as Grant; Olympia Dukakis as Marian; Michael Murphy as Aubrey; Kristen Thomson as Kristy; Wendy Crewson as Madeline
Sarah Polley ( )