Away From Her
directed by Sarah Polley
On the opening night of the critically acclaimed Canadian independent film Away From Her, the theater was packed with senior citizens in a mood of purposeful intensity. During the trailers, one elderly woman indignantly demanded absolute silence from her neighbors. The film, based on a short story by Alice Munro and directed by Sarah Polley, is about a retired literature professor, Grant Andersson (Gordon Pinsent), and his wife, Fiona (Julie Christie), whose golden years together are overshadowed when she succumbs to Alzheimer’s dementia. It was hard to believe that all the senior citizens came because they were fans of Julie Christie and Alice Munro. Had the dread off Alzheimer’s disease brought them?
The growing white-haired demographic (which includes this reviewer and Alice Munro) is familiar with “senior moments” and where-did-I-park-the-car experiences. At our stage in life, people begin to worry that their bodies might outlast their neural networks. These forebodings are most distressing to those whose self-esteem is founded on intellect, whose self-respect is measured by self-control, and whose personal dignity is more important than life itself. Such people might choose physician-assisted suicide over dementia, incontinence, and dependency.
If moviegoers that night were secretly looking for reassurance about their own futures, Away From Her certainly provided it. The film warrants the belief that it is possible to “go gently into that good night.” Julie Christie, even in dementia, is beautiful, well-nigh radiant, and if she has “lost her mind” and no longer recognizes her husband, her good manners and personal dignity never fail her.
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Christie’s Fiona is in control: she is able to remember and recognize the significance of her forgettings, and she is the one who decides it is time to enter a nursing home—even over the objections of her husband. Much of this is in Munro’s story, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” which was first published in The New Yorker and which was included in the author’s 2001 collection, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. But Polley’s screenplay, instead of coming to grips with the reality of dementia, accommodates her star, making the film largely a paean to Christie’s beauty. Nor is this gloss on the physical ravages of dementia the only way the film diverges from Munro’s tale.The film’s title is taken from a passage in the story describing the 18-year-old Fiona’s offhand proposal to Grant on a beach in Port Stanley, Ontario: “The waves delivered crashing loads of gravel at their feet. ‘Do you think it would be fun—’ Fiona shouted. ‘Do you think it would be fun if we got married?’ He took her up on it, he shouted yes. He wanted never to be away from her. She had the spark of life.” Pulling on that thread, Polley’s film portrays Fiona and Grant’s relationship entirely in poignant, almost sentimental terms. Munro’s story, on the other hand, takes its title from a children’s song: “The bear went over the mountain to see what he could see.” Truncating the familiar line, Munro conveys a threat. Indeed, rather than celebrating conventional notions of romantic love, her story puts them to the test.
The film also departs from the perspective set up by Munro, who tells the story from the husband’s point of view, though not necessarily in his words or thoughts. Fiona’s marriage proposal, Grant’s year-long affair with a colleague’s wife, Grant’s frequent dalliances with students—through all of this Munro looks over Grant’s shoulder and into his soul. When his philandering leads to a forced early retirement, he and Fiona settle into a pleasant, seemingly harmonious life together. Munro then subjects their relationship to an even more exacting test. What happens to Fiona’s love when Alzheimer’s causes Fiona to forget who Grant is? And what happens to Grant’s love when he is forced to realize that he has been forgotten? If this analysis sounds overly complicated, Munro’s brilliantly clear prose tells a story that we could not have imagined but that we immediately recognize as true.
Munro can summon up a character in a single sentence. Fiona’s mother, Munro writes, “was Icelandic—a powerful woman with a froth of white hair and indignant far-left politics.” In one bold stroke, this sentence illuminates Fiona’s character and adds subtle dimension to it. But viewers aren’t told this in the film. Likewise, Polley never tells us that Fiona was childless and lavished intense affection on Boris and Natasha, her Russian wolfhounds; that her father was a distinguished cardiologist; that she worked as the volunteer coordinator in his hospital, “where people actually had troubles that were not related to drugs or sex or intellectual squabbles”; that she, unlike her husband, resisted the epidemic of sexual liberation that swept up the faculty and students; and that Grant, who became a specialist in Anglo-Saxon Nordic literature, had married up and was valued by the college in part because of his father-in-law’s money. These details bring the characters and their relationship to life.
Polley obviously studied Munro’s story carefully. What is nonetheless missing from the work of this 28-year-old actress and first-time feature-film director is what one literary critic describes, using Munro’s own words, as her gift for revealing the “shameless, marvelous, shattering absurdity” of life. Instead of questioning the conventional notion of love, Polley makes it the very premise of her film. Far from ambivalent, Gordon Pinsent’s Grant is deeply in love with his wife. They spend the days cross-country skiing in the wintry Canadian landscape, and nestle into their tastefully furnished farmhouse each night.
That said, the film is faithful to the signs of Alzheimer’s described by Munro. Fiona absent-mindedly puts a frying pan in the freezer while her husband looks on ruefully. While dining with another couple she offers to refill their glasses, but then has a humiliating moment when she cannot remember the word “wine.” She goes cross-country skiing by herself, gets lost, and can’t find her way back home. When Fiona falls back, exhausted and helpless, and the camera pans over the scene from the distant sky, the snowy landscape seems to be the outward manifestation of a mind emptied of meaningful landmarks.
But we also see Fiona poring through books describing Alzheimer’s and its impact on the unafflicted spouse. The Alzheimer’s books are Polley’s invention, and so is an even more startling flourish: after Fiona moves into her room at the nursing home, she asks Grant to make love to her and then leave. We see them embracing in the bittersweet aftermath as she tells him, “Now go!” As if that weren’t melodramatic enough, the scene presages another post-coital moment of Polley’s invention that will appear later in the film.
When Fiona settles into the nursing home, she forgets her husband and forms an attachment to another man, Aubrey (Michael Murphy). Under the sentimental spell of the film, one might say she has fallen in love with another man. But her attentive attachment to Aubrey is more like what Munro tells us she felt for her Russian wolfhounds or what she might have felt for a child. Taking care of Aubrey and being needed by him might also be warding off her own feelings of neediness and dependency in the nursing home. In both film and story versions she becomes inconsolable and begins to deteriorate when Aubrey’s wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis), removes him from the nursing home.
Grant and Marian dislike each other at first sight. He had married up, and this déclassé woman reminds him of what his life might have been like had he not done so. Marian dismisses him as a “jerk,” but then Marian—a person whom Munro tells us could, in a crisis, “take the shoes off a dead body in the streets”—leaves several messages on Grant’s answering machine inviting him to a dance. He overcomes his jealousy of Fiona’s new attachment. What Munro thereafter only implies, Polley dramatizes with her second post-coital moment, in which first Marian and then Grant share with the camera a droll smile of self-satisfaction. Grant soon persuades Marian to return Aubrey to the nursing home, in Polley’s telling, out of his love for his wife. Yet here is how Munro describes Grant’s thoughts about his seduction of Marian: “It would be a challenge. A challenge and a creditable feat. Also a joke that could never be confided to anybody—to think that by his bad behavior he’d be doing good for Fiona.” We are now very far away indeed from Polley’s clichés.
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Away from Her has been almost universally praised by film critics, which suggests that the cinematic translation works. Yet what has been lost is what makes Munro’s short story revelatory. Looking over Grant’s shoulder, Munro gave her readers an extraordinary account of 30 years of campus sexual mores, and particularly the effects of the era’s unfettered narcissism on marriage. Munro likens the phenomenon to an epidemic, rather like the Spanish flu—except that no one wanted to be left out. First it was the wives of colleagues who made themselves available to the likes of Grant; then it was the mature women returning to school who were ready to give their bodies for a few words of praise from the great professor; and then the young women declared themselves mature and ready. Grant serviced them all (though not as many as some colleagues did) and felt duped when, in later years, the same “willing” women decided they had been coerced and exploited. As a new feminist stringency took over, what for Grant had been a self-affirming experience became grounds for humiliation and social ostracism. He felt shame, not about what he had done, but about being deceived. Drawing from all those years in which he saw himself as giving to all those woman rather than taking from them, he brought a new sense of resolve and repentance into his autumnal love of Fiona, thanking the stars that he had not lost her. Most of this account Polley’s screenplay could not accomodate.
Both narratives end with Grant visiting the nursing home to tell Fiona that Aubrey will be returning. But now Fiona’s neural networks have lost Aubrey and rediscovered her husband. She embraces and blesses him: “You could have just driven away …without a care in the world and forsook me. Forsooken me. Forsaken.”
It is a moment of redemption for Grant, perhaps even a moment of love, but the film removes it from Munro’s context of shattering emotional absurdity and distills it into a honey-coated platitude: love conquers all.
Away from Her is not really a bad film. It just doesn’t come close to the mind-bending wisdom of Alice Munro’s story.