At roughly 12,000 words, Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came over the Mountain” is an astutely observed sketch, but little more. The story of an elderly man dealing with his wife’s encroaching senility and growing attachment, after she’s gone into a nursing home, to a fellow patient, “The Bear” gives us the facts of the case but concludes before we have a chance to really get to know the characters. Its emotional reticence is broken only in its affecting final paragraphs. Away from Her, writer/director Sarah Polley’s film adaptation of Munro’s story, moves us in the ways the story can’t, not because it is any less reticent or any more manipulative, but because it takes the material deeper and farther, filling in the details of the marriage and the individuals involved and allowing us to see more of their lives and what they mean to each other. Perhaps even more so, though, it moves us because of the performance and the screen presence of Julie Christie.
Surely it’s stacking the deck to cast Julie Christie as a woman slowly losing ground to the indignities of aging. Even if her long period of semiretirement means that many younger moviegoers won’t recognize her from her iconic roles in Doctor Zhivago, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Shampoo, et al., her screen presence is nonetheless one of such elegance and enduring beauty that the thought of her diminishing is a legitimate source of sorrow. Even in its decline, Christie’s beauty remains dazzling, perhaps in some ways more so, as age has softened the sharp jawline and slightly androgynous quality of her youth. There is poignance here, as there always is in decline, but there’s no room for pity. At 66, her features are still fine; her hair is still lustrous; her eyes are still an arresting ice-blue; and she still has a body most 20-year-olds would envy.
In Away from Her, Christie plays Fiona, a woman exhibiting the onset of Alzheimer’s and struggling to maintain as much of her dignity and self-determination as possible. Though she accepts her illness, her husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent), a retired literature professor, tries to deny it and can’t accept the thought of her needing long-term care. Fiona, though, resolute in determining her own fate to whatever degree she still can, pragmatically insists on moving into a nearby nursing home. Afterward, we see her only when Grant visits the home, yet Christie still haunts every frame of the film; after it’s over, you may find certain images of her still crowding your brain for hours or days. She is woman as eternal mystery, now turned mystery even to herself, as her motivations slip away from her mind by the time she’s acted upon them.
Forced to wait 30 days before his first visit, to give Fiona time to acclimate to her new environment, Grant arrives to find her having begun an entirely new life to which he is peripheral at best. Only rarely does she break her new routine to speak to him, and when she does, it’s in the polite but detached manner of a person greeting a distant relative. Does she mistake him for a new patient, as it sometimes appears, or is she simply trying to make her new life more manageable by distancing herself from her old one? Grant can’t be sure and neither can we. And what of Aubrey (Michael Murphy), the brain-damaged near-mute who has become her constant companion? It’s not clear whether their relationship is physical, or even if Aubrey would be capable of that, but Grant is unmistakably cuckolded nonetheless. And given his past indiscretions with a number of his students, Grant can’t help wondering if her relationship with Aubrey is a deliberate revenge or perhaps fate, or karma, or divine retribution. Surely he deserves nothing better.
The movie is doubly touching because the loss of Fiona’s faculties gets at us in two ways, as a tragedy in its own right and as it affects Grant. Grant is a man both grieving and aggrieved, yet he’s solid and pragmatic in his steadfast devotion to Fiona. At a moment in their marriage when he could walk away and suffer no external consequences — they have few friends and no children or other family to judge him — he chooses to rise to the occasion as he never has before. Fiona’s gradual drift away from him has made him finally realize how much she means to him, how fortunate he has been to have spent 45 years in her company. Pinsent’s understated performance never reaches outside the character to ask us to forgive him his failings as a husband; instead, we care for the character because we see the pain of realizing how much you have to apologize for when the person from whom you need absolution is no longer in a state to bestow it. Perhaps the greatest tragedy, as regards Grant, is that he’s discovered his ability to be selfless just as Fiona has lost her ability to appreciate it. Whatever narrative of their marriage remains in her mind, it can’t contain his best and most difficult moments, while, perversely, old hurts seem to have moved to the fore. Though Christie’s is the more attention-grabbing performance, it is Pinsent’s simple, unsentimental description of Grant’s love for Fiona that provides the film’s single most moving moment.
Long known to indie-film fans as a gifted actress, Polley is here making her feature debut as a writer and director (following two shorts), and it’s an outstanding piece of work, particularly for a filmmaker still in her late 20s. Taking on a period of life and aspects of marriage that most directors twice her age would shun as being depressing and un-commercial, Polley shows a tremendous empathy with these characters and a precocious understanding of what remains of love after the early passion has burned away. Particularly impressive are the scenes she’s added to Munro’s story to show the relationship prior to Fiona’s hospitalization; they give us deeper insights into both characters and particularly into Fiona’s attitude toward her own illness. Polley does make some missteps, though, as in her nonlinear structuring of the narrative — a conceit that could be used to mirror the disorienting effects of Fiona’s condition but that in this particular cultural moment just seems faddish and self-consciously indie. Still, and perhaps most impressively, Polley has constructed a film that is deeply moving while maintaining Munro’s cool objectivity, that particularly Canadian detachment we may recognize in her writing and in the films of directors such as Atom Egoyan, who worked with Polley in Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter and is an obvious influence. Away from Her is one of those exceedingly rare instances of an adaptation that not only honors but actually surpasses its source.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Away from Her / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 7, 2007 | Comments ()