Donâ€™t it always seem to go
That you donâ€™t know what youâ€™ve got â€˜til itâ€™s gone
Day-to-day, we donâ€™t appreciate what weâ€™ve got. Whether itâ€™s our health, our loved ones, or myriad other little niceties itâ€™s easy to take all of this for granted. Away From Her is the story of a man who loses his wife, even though sheâ€™s right in front of him the whole time.
Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie) Anderson are a lively couple. Married for forty-four years, theyâ€™ve settled into a relatively comfortable retirement filled with cross country skiing, romantic sunsets, and cozy nights by the fire with a good book. Then Fiona starts to forget things. Mundane and unremarkable slips of the mind early on, but one day she wanders off and gets lost. While Grant slips into heroic denial, she is too young, too different, the truth is that his beautiful wife has Alzheimerâ€™s and she needs to be in a nursing home.
During the admission process, Grant is informed by the administrator (Wendy Crewson) that he canâ€™t visit at all for the first month, the longest theyâ€™ve ever been apart. Upon his return, he sees Fiona sitting with a strange man, playing cards. He is devastated to learn that not only does she forget about him, but is in love with a fellow patient, Aubrey (Michael Murphy.) The staff tries to play it off as something that happens â€œall the timeâ€, that is â€œnot personalâ€, a fact he reluctantly accepts. And then the film heads into unexpected territory: reality.
Trying to cheer up his wife, Grant ends up spending time with Aubreyâ€™s wife Marian (Olympia Dukakis), whose explanation why she wonâ€™t put Aubrey in home time is so refreshingly and unemotionally pragmatic that it almost seems cruel. Itâ€™s not cruel. Itâ€™s life. Even the self-sacrificing husband canâ€™t help but flirt with other women at the home, and is taken to task by the feisty head nurse (Kristen Scott) who tells him that at the end of it all, itâ€™s usually the men that think things were “mostly fine”. She wonders what Fiona would think. So does he.
It is in these scenes that writer/director Sarah Polley elevates the material from melodrama to greatness. The true-to-life tone is maintained through some inspired performances. Scott and Dukakis are excellent foils to the taciturn Mr. Anderson, and Julie Christie manages to shine in portraying the increasingly erratic Mrs. Anderson. Yet just as Tom Cruise must be acknowledged for his excellent work in Rain Main, Gordon Pinsent deserves plaudits for brilliantly playing a role that relies as much on posture and expression as it does on dialog.
Those small touches, a smile here, sweet oblivion there, that add up to more than the sum of their parts are the key to the film. There are moments in Away From Her that will soften the hardest heart, but it is not a sentimental tribute to ideal love. Itâ€™s about a flawed man who must come to terms with the end of his marriage, yet clearly isnâ€™t a bad man. Merely human.