The easy and lazy way to describe "Away From Her" is to say that it's a movie about a woman (Julie Christie) with Alzheimer's. There's nothing factually wrong with that sentence, but it conjures up the image of a sentimental disease-of-the-week TV movie. The film that the 28-year-old Canadian actress Sarah Polley has made from Alice Munro's story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" is emotionally devastating, but its insights into the complexities of love and marriage and memory are not the sort you're likely to find on Lifetime. Its tears are earned in more honest, surprising ways.
"Away From Her" is the story of a marriage. Grant (Gordon Pinsent), a retired professor, and the vibrant, playful Fiona (Christie) have been together 44 years. They've achieved a remarkable closeness in this late, nearly idyllic phase of their marriage, which is when her memory starts to fail. As her condition worsens, the recent past is the first thing to disappear from her mind, leaving behind older, more disturbing recollections. As he drives her to the Meadowlake nursing home, she alludes to her husband's infidelities with students he has taught.
Grant is not allowed to visit Fiona for the first 30 days of her stay. When he does come, she no longer seems to know him. His wife now lavishes her rapt attention on the silent Aubrey (Michael Murphy), a fellow patient confined to a wheelchair. The helpful young nurse Kristy (Kristen Thomson) urges Grant not to take it personally. How do you not take it personally when the woman you love is in love with another man, and thinks of you as a kindly stranger? Yet Grant keeps coming back. Is it guilt, masochism, a deluded hope that she will snap out of her fog or a loyalty that will tolerate no obstacles? What is love when it has no shared memories?
This is just the beginning of a most unusual love story, one that asks us to examine the deeper nature of fidelity. Polley, who wrote the fine adaptation herself, doesn't tell the story in a linear way. Before we even know who Aubrey is, we see Grant going to meet Aubrey's wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis), a tough, straight-talking cookie who wonders why the husband of the woman her husband is obsessed with is coming to visit. The answer is not what she, or we, expect.
For anyone who grew up worshiping at the shrine of Julie Christie, the notion that she could be playing a white-haired woman drifting into senility is a jolt to the system. But her radiance, beauty and talent are undiminished: she's hauntingly, heartbreakingly good. Polley gets great work from the entire cast: Beneath his bearlike stoicism, Pinsent reveals pools of tenderness and hurt. As the blunt Marian, a woman who uses her abrasive edge as a defense against feelings, Dukakis is superb, as are the sly Thom-son as a surprisingly perceptive nurse and Wendy Crewson as Meadowlake's chilling-ly cheerful administrator. You can't make snap judgments about the characters in "Away From Her." They have what Grant loved about Fiona from the moment he met her: "the spark of life."