Away From Her, 110 mins, rated M, opening in cinemas on 4 October 2007


(This is my review as  published in the October 2007 issue of The New South Wales Law Society Journal)

“She said, ‘Do you think it would be fun if we got married?’”
“And what did you say?”
“I shouted ‘yes’. I never wanted to be away from her. She had the spark of life”.

Screen legend Julie Christie stars as Fiona, the woman whose spark of life has begun to dim. Playing Grant, her husband, is Canadian national treasure Gordon Pinsent. The film is Away From Her, a beautiful chamber piece from first-time director, Sarah Polley.

Grant and Fiona have been married for 44 years. He’s a retired Professor of Norse literature, and she’s an elegant woman of Icelandic descent. They are both in their 60s, living a comfortable life in the country, reading to each other, cross-country skiing at dusk, and hosting the occasional dinner party. But things are beginning to unravel: Fiona has Alzheimer’s disease.

This could set the scene for a disease-of-the-week tele-movie, but nothing could be further from the truth. Based on a short story ("The Bear Came over the Mountain") by renowned Canadian writer Alice Munro, this wise and wonderful film has much to say about love, sex, aging and the things we remember – and forget – as we go through life with another person. It’s remarkable that the film was written and directed by a 28-year-old actor.

Polley uses the wintry Canadian setting well. The layers of snow that smother the landscape become a metaphor for the gradual erasure of Fiona’s memory. It begins with the little things – she puts the frying pan in the fridge, forgets the word “wine”, and needs labels for her cupboards and drawers. But one day when out skiing she forgets where she is. This is serious.

Yet Away From Her is never predictable. Fiona is surprisingly accepting of the need to enter a nursing home. At first this appears to be out of consideration for Grant, but soon she seems to embrace the very oblivion that Grant fears for her. She forms an almost wifely attachment to another resident of the nursing home, Aubrey (Michael Murphy), and as Grant watches his wife tending to Aubrey’s needs, he is forced to revisit painful memories of his own infidelity to Fiona. When he voices his suspicion that Fiona is only pretending – that she is punishing him – we realise how deeply selfish Grant still is. More surprises follow, and through it all Polley deftly avoids the maudlin and the obvious, revealing some of the more bittersweet truths of life.

Polley has assembled a great supporting cast, with Olympia Dukakis stealing scenes as Aubrey’s sardonic wife, Kristen Thompson as a sympathetic nurse, and Michael Murphy giving an affecting performance as Aubrey – without ever uttering a word. Polley’s husband, David Wharnsby, has edited the film with a sure hand, guiding us through a fractured narrative which mirrors the splintering of Fiona’s memory.

As this is a Canadian film, it is almost compulsory to feature the songs of Neil Young. But their predictability does not diminish their effectiveness one iota. Before Fiona leaves home, she and Grant dance to Young’s song “Harvest Moon”, itself a fitting reflection on mature love. And the film ends with Young’s wonderful “Helpless,” sung by KD Lang. Somehow this vents the conflicting emotions the film has aroused, and brings us to a satisfying resolution, thus concluding an utterly assured work from a talented young director.