Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious
or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist
on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it
does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the
truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes
all things, endures all things.
1 Cor. 13:4-7
As the film begins we hear a man speaking about his wife and how they had never been apart for as long as a month. He states that he cannot bear to be “away from her.” The man is Grant (Gordon Pinsent), who is speaking about his wife Fiona (Julie Christie), and soon we learn that the month he is speaking about is the cruel requirement that Meadowlake, a modern, comfortable-looking center for Alzheimer patients, imposes upon patients and their families. Cutting back and forth between present and past, the film shows the early stage of the disease when Fiona washes a skillet and then places it in the refrigerator freezer. Grant unobtrusively retrieves it and places it in a cabinet. It is obvious that this is not the first time he has done such a thing.
Fiona is apparently a realist. We see the two of them talking about when she will need institutionalizing, with Grant trying to deny that she has Alzheimer’s. She accepts what is happening and wants to prepare them both for what is looming ahead. But her becoming lost while out cross-country skiing alone, and the many sticker notes with which he has labeled the various kitchen drawers finally convince him, so they visit Meadowlake where the too professionally cheerful Madeleine (Wendy Crewson), the superintendent, takes them on the grand tour. The staff, especially nurse Kristy (Kristen Thomson) to whom Madleine introduces them, seem compassionate, and the place is well lit and made to look as homey as possible. All is fine but for the inflexible rule that no one, not even the spouse, is allowed any contact, even by telephone, with a new resident until thirty days have passed since their admission.
The relentless rule, Madeleine explains, is so that the resident can adjust more quickly to her new surroundings and routine. Outside visitors disrupt the resident’s mind, allegedly. Fiona assures Grant that she will be fine. The couple ask to be alone in her new room, indulging in sex as a part of their saying good-bye. Just how cruel the thirty day rule is we see when Grant returns at the end of the period. Fiona is sitting at a table with some other residents playing cards and does not seem to recognize Grant. She is helping the silent Aubrey (Michael Murphy) with his hand, and is impatient to get back when Grant takes her aside to talk. This goes on and on, visit after visit, with Fiona apparently regarding him as a persistent stranger who diverts her from her duty of helping Aubrey. Grant has many conversations with Kristy, who at one point wonders about a remark Fiona had made that might indicate a past infidelity on his part when he was a college professor popular with attractive co-eds.
Actress Sarah Polley, who also wrote the script, based on the short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro, has become as capable a director as she has been an actress. She has said that one of the other Canadian directors she has looked up to is Atom Egoyan, who gifted us with perhaps one of the most harrowing films about sorrow, The Sweet Hereafter;; Mr. Egoyan is listed as one of the producers of this film. Sorrow is very much a part of Away From Her, too, with Grant suffering his loss twice: first when he admits Fiona to the home, and then when she attaches herself to another man during the too long a period when he was involuntarily “away from her.”
Better even than The Notebook, this is a film that those working with the elderly, and particularly the memory-impaired, should own and show to every family that entrusts a loved one to their care. It is a film that has much to teach the rest of us as well, not just about Alzheimer’s and of the importance of memory and what happens when we are slowly robbed of it, but about the human heart as well. A good film takes us to places where we either cannot or will not ordinarily venture: Sarah Polley’s is one of these films that deserve to be seen and treasured by as wide an audience as possible.
1) What new things did you learn about this dread disease? Whom have you known that was afflicted by it? What in common does Fiona have with that person?
2) What does the film reveal about the importance of memory: how are we, in a sense, the sum total of our memories? How is memory an integral part of the gospel and the church? For example, what did Jesus say at the Last Supper? (See Luke 24:14-19; also, at another dinner table, Matt. 22:6-13.)
3) What do you think of Meadowlake’s thirty day no contact policy? What do you think of Kristy’s remark that they do it more for the staff than for the patient? How is this disastrous for Grant’s and Fiona’s relationship? How is this inflexible rule similar to what Jesus encountered in Mark 2:23-28?
4) How is Grant’s Eros love transformed by his ordeal into agape love, as in 1 Cor. 13? And yet he still has erotic feelings: what do you think of his relationship with Marian (Olympia Dukakis), Aubrey’s wife? How did it start out one way and wind up something else?
5) Where do you see grace (or God) in this film? In Kristy’s concern; in Grant’s continual visiting Fiona, even though she no longer recognizes their relationship? What moment near the end offers some measure of hope?