The Alzheimer's Association estimates that someone in America develops the disease every 72 seconds. Every 72 seconds another world starts to disappear into a fog of forgetfulness and confusion. In Away From Her, we see that fog envelop the 45-year-old marriage of Fiona and Grant Andersson.
Unwilling to yet yield himself to Fiona's diagnosis of Alzheimer's, Grant posits at one point that his wife has always been an unusual person. Perhaps her forgetfulness is simply an outgrowth of her free spirit? While this is clearly wishful thinking, Fiona is indeed an atypical senior citizen. She and Grant are both aging gracefully, but Fiona, played by 60s bombshell actress Julie Christie, is lithe and winsome. Her flowing silver hair is perpetually disheveled in a come-hither way, and she moves around a room like a woman half her age.
Far from having devolved into a sort of platonic friendship, it's plain that Grant and Fiona's romance is robust—and this is one of the true delights of the movie. It doesn't ask us to imagine how the two might have been as young lovers to properly relate to them. Instead, we can see that the two are fully orbed partners in the here and now. But as Fiona's short-term memory fades, her long-term memories of "things we don't talk about" floats to the surface and tests her carefree composure. Grant, played with heavy-lidded aplomb by Gordon Pinsent, looks like a lion that's had the wind knocked out of him when Fiona references his 20-year-old infidelities out-of-the-blue and says she wishes it were these memories that would disappear into the fog.
Instead, these memories linger. What fades is the past 20 years in which Grant has redeemed himself by retiring from his post as a college professor and moving with Fiona to the cabin her grandparents once owned. He is a good man, she says in her lucid moments. But her memories of his failures haunt Grant as Fiona slips further from the present reality. Recognizing her steady decline, Fiona insists on going to live at a local nursing home. Grant resists, but Fiona has made up her mind. Even in her state, it's clear she's not to be trifled with.
The nursing home is pitch perfect—a sobering amalgam of bravery, compassion, decline, and institutionalized food. As the facility's administrator Madeleine, Wendy Crewson is sympathetic, but not necessarily emphathetic, as she sets forth the rules—including a 30-day transition period during which Grant is unable to visit Fiona. He shrinks from the requirement, whereas Fiona leans in and says "I want to make love, and then I want you to go."
When Grant returns he finds that Fiona has developed an emotional attachment with another man—a fellow patient named Aubrey. Grant hovers around the periphery of Fiona's world, indignant that his place has been usurped but aware that such frustration is fruitless. Despite her dementia, Grant wonders if Fiona is, on some level, getting back at him.
Nurse Kristy, wise in the ways of Alzheimer's, tells Grant that such shifts of attachment are common in her patients. The attachments come and go and he shouldn't take it personally. And yet, as he suggests the cause of his concern, she offers a sobering observation. "You see the end of things all day long here, and at the end of things, it's usually the men who think not much went wrong." For Grant, losing his wife to Alzheimer's means coming to terms with how much he hurt her. And it also means finding new ways to be faithful to her now.
Eventually Grant meets Aubrey's wife, and together they fumble around looking for a certain comfort in each other. But Grant's thoughts are never far from Fiona. After telling the romantic story of how Fiona proposed and they got married when she was 18, he says, "I tell the story and it sounds so crucial (being madly in love), but compared with what we ended up with, until recently, all that seems superficial."
Away From Her makes some missteps. The narrative jumps back and forth in time in a way that isn't helpful. And there was a political statement about war that seemed almost comically out of place. But in the main, this movie is a moving meditation on what love looks like after it's had more than 40 years to grow. It's a love with deep scars, but roots that go deeper still.Discussion starters
- In the movie, Alzheimer's is described as "like a series of circuit breakers in a large house flipping off one by one." Have you ever known someone afflicted with this disease? What was your experience like?
- In a conversation, Kristy references a church sign that reads, "It's never too late to become what you might have been." Grant replies, "That doesn't sound all that biblical." What do you think about the statement on the church sign? Do you think it's a biblical idea? Why or why not?
- One of the characters said, "People want to be in love every single day. What a liability!" What do you think she meant by that statement? Do you agree with her?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Away From Her is rated PG-13 for strong language. There are a few instances of crude language. In one brief scene an older couple is show in bed together after having had sex. The people are only seen from the shoulders up, but both are married to other people. Past adultery is referenced, but not glamorized.
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