Okay. Deep breath. It’s another Alzheimer’s film. After the emotional journey of Still Alice (2014), old Jack thought he’d go the whole hog and bask in some Julie Christie goodness. It’s not an easy bask. From the start, she plays Fiona Anderson as a woman knowing her disease and knowing where it will take her. After the personal, in-her-head stylings of Julianne Moore’s performance, this film is more observational of the victim of the disease as it spends much of its time with Grant Anderson, played by Gordon Pinsent, soon to endure life Away from Her.
They are an old married couple – she still with the beauty of her youth; he well on the way to taking a ring to Mordor – and they live in a land of snow. They are a comfy, familiar, loving pair and the first flash of awful comes as she puts a frying pan in the freezer. I felt a pang of relief that the story wasn’t going to dawdle through an hour of crumbling normality. And it doesn’t. Christie – pitch perfect in her containment of a distancing nature – puts herself into a local care home: ground floor – comfy rooms and social activities; first floor – the dazed evening of hospitalised lives. House rule is that no-one visits for thirty days…
Pinsent’s Grant – all contained despair – takes this badly. And his nightmares prove worth the effort when he returns a month later to find Christie out of her room, tending to another patient at a bridge game. Aubrey (Michael Murphy) is silent and needy. And a bit of an artist: Christie is now surrounded by drawings of herself in her heart-wrenchingly beautiful youth (A for Andromeda, anybody?). Yikes – affection? Pinsent keeps visiting, but she pushes him away in favour of attending to Aubrey – “you are persistent” lines keep popping up. And, my, you get to feel Grant’s bemused pain. This level of cruelty was not something he expected and – if it weren’t for some of the B Wing liaisons in the wee hours – I’d be surprised as well.
But, because of this, the film becomes Pinsent’s and rather dates itself. Still Alice (2014) takes you on Alice’s journey, that’s the beauty of Julianne Moore’s performance. Julie Christie is marvellous here, but she is observed. We spend our time with Pinsent as he loses her. And then the film goes somewhere difficult: for some of the longer term memories – emotions, if you will – that survive in Fiona are angry ones. It’s a thing you see in this home sometimes. Ancient couples, one on their way out, the other just a visitor, bound in a silence that seems to be part-affection and part-resentment. Spending long lives together gives us purpose and identity, but it destroys other choices. Old Jack here wondered how much of Fiona’s distance was unexpressed anger at opportunities lost. Huzzah to Christie and Pinsent for bringing that out in the mundane pottering around their care home.
The performances are calm, natural and – in the cases of Kristen Thomson as the nurse and Olympia Dukakis as Aubrey’s stolid wife Marian – played with the clarity of hospice staff. When Mrs Jack was on her way out there was no time to edge up to the truth. Though it brought unexpected tears, I recognised that in Pinsent’s conversations with these women. Both immeasurably wiser and more insightful than Grant will ever be, they guide him through the vacuum. Old Mrs Jack and I sat with one such woman when her terminal diagnosis was confirmed, with another when treatment options had to be considered, with another – a chaplain – when her dormant faith demanded permission to die. So…nicely done. Away from Her gets that very right. If you’re new to this, seek out people like these.
Yup – it’s a sad one, this. A good film with excellent performances. Ultimately, the observational balance puts it behind Still Alice (2014) for me. And again, as with all these dementia films, handle with care if the monster is upon you.