Away From Her
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Married for almost 50 years, Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona's (Julie Christie) commitment to each other appears unwavering, and their everyday life is full of tenderness and humor. This serenity is broken only by the occasional, carefully restrained reference to the past, giving a sense that this marriage may not always have been such a fairy tale. This tendency of Fiona's to make such references, along with her increasingly evident memory loss, creates a tension that is usually brushed off casually by both of them. But when it is no longer possible for either of them to ignore the fact that Fiona is being consumed by Alzheimer's disease, the limits of their love and loyalty must be wrenchingly redefined.
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Top customer reviews
I first saw this movie not long after it was released in 2006, and was exceedingly impressed with it. A couple enjoying their “golden years,” retired, a cabin in the woods, still physically active, cross-country skiing on beautiful sunny Canadian days. But within a few minutes it becomes obvious that she is “losing it,” the on-set of Alzheimer’s, one of the ultimate in heart-breaking “bad cards” one can draw. The couple is Grant and Fiona Anderson, played brilliantly by Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie. In my mind, she will always be associated as “Lara” in Doctor Zhivago. And “Pasha,” the revolutionary, was ever so naïve when it came to assessing her heart (and body!). (“she is unmarried, and that speaks for itself.”)
Within a few years I’m reading a book of short stories by my “beloved” Alice Munro, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories). Normally I give her works the special “6-star” rating for being truly exceptional. The last story is “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” A familiar story, indeed, and with a bit of checking I realized that the movie is based upon it. But in the story there was a key passage about… “…the cards being so stacked against us.” that provided the explanation for Grant’s philandering with all those college girls he was teaching, with their bare toes in their sandals. But that critical insight was missing from the movie… or so I thought.
Over the past half-decade that question would nag. Was the insight deliberately omitted? So I re-watch the movie. I appreciated it even more the second time around. In the interest of full disclosure, some four decades ago I established and managed a 50-bed Alzheimer’s unit – the second one in the State of Georgia. Time and time again the movie hit, and hit again the telling points of such a facility. There was the “canned tour” by the Director, stressing the “natural light.” Oh, how the inhibitions would fade away. One patient just casually remarks, concerning a “messed up situation,” that it was a real… and uses the world that implies multiple sexual partners at one time. The lament: “all the charmers are dead or taken.” The locked elevators, guarding the patients who have “progressed,” which Grant notes is an “interesting choice of words.” And even a tribute to an old John Prine song about “all the news just repeats itself”: scenes from (one of) the wars in Iraq, and Fiona blurts out: “How could they forget Vietnam?”
There is “the good nurse” who cares, really cares about the human drama that unfolds around her, and does what she can to nudge the scales to the better. Grant relies on her insights. She is talking about how some of the residents establish relationships…and it is not always as one would think, the men after the women. “…you know, half the time it is the other way around. Old women going after the old men. Could be they are not so worn out, I guess.” A big “oops.” This is precisely Grant’s fear, that his wife of 44 years may have undertaken some “pay back” for all “those bare toes.” And the nurse quickly back pedals, with: Of course, not Fiona, she is a real lady.” But even more so, Grant wonders if she is using her “memory” against him: “I wonder if she is not putting on some kind of a charade.” A question that would nag me about, perhaps five of the 50 patients: Were they putting me on? And in later life, the same question nagged me about my mother. Julie Christie plays that part brilliantly. You never really know, and maybe the answer is: “half of the time.”
And on my re-read of the story, I’ll admit that perhaps I put too much “spin” on that passage that ended with “…the cards being so stacked against us.” Maybe some married women still do, despite the “received wisdom.” The story and the movie really do faithfully align, with the emphasis on the deep ambiguity of the situation, and where that will-o-wisp called “reality” might lay.
Once again, I found myself wanting to SCREAM about the totally misleading blurb: “The beautiful and moving story of an older couple’s love that transcends Alzheimer’s disease.” T’ain’t that at all, as some other reviewers have noted. Despite the blurb, and perhaps because of the tricks my own memory played on me, it remains an excellent movie, worthy of another view, after a while, if I still have my wits about me. 5-stars, plus. The beautiful and moving story of an older couple's love that transcends Alzheimer's disease
The staff in this care facility were charicatures. One conveniently well informed about Alzheimer's and the one in charge conveniently cold, clinical and patronizing. The concept of one aid or nurse appearing all the time is not the least consistent with my personal experience with long-term-care facilities. If you visit often, you get to know 4 or 6 caregivers and you hope they are actually there the next time you visit. Staff turnover is extremely disruptive for the patients.
Lastly, and most disappointing, the ending is not an ending. We are left to conclude for ourselves what decisions the husband makes and how he handles the complexity. That was a long way to travel with the main characters to be left wondering what he does next.
All well done and worth watching.
As a pastor, a long time ago, there was a couple who could play dual pianos. Creative and beautiful people who raised a family as good as they were. Myrt was as beatiful as Julie Christie. As I watched, my thoughts and heart was with them and their journey.
Later, at another church, there was a woman whose husband was institutionalized with advanced Alzeimers. She was there, for him several times weekly, mostly without recognition. Another man came into her life and she was troubled. "Honor your vows by being with your husband to the small percentage that he is present. Honor your heart with the new love given you. In a sometimes cruel world..."
This is a real film about people I've known. It is a biochemical disease and it will be understood and solutions found. I believe.