Loss of memory unleashes shaky past

MovieREVIEW

Away from Her

Directed by Sarah Polley

Lions Gate Films, 2007

110 minutes, Rated PG-13

At 28, Sarah Polley, director of “Away from Her,” a Canadian film, has taken on some heady and tough issues and refuses to use sympathy as a tool to capture the audience.

The film is based on a short story, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” by Alice Munro.

In a scene set in the woods, after a deep-snowed Ontario winter, Fiona (Julie Christie) and her husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent) come across a wildflower. Fiona kneels down to caress the bloom, and then standing, turns to Grant and says, “When I turn away, I forget what yellow means.”

Pow!

The camera is on Grant, whose eyes pour sadness without tears. He seems to be wrestling with the thought, “Who is this person? And why does she seem so different from the person I’ve been married to for the last 40 years?”

Fiona, with dedication, is almost rushing to move into a nursing home. And conventional wisdom demands it. She’s admitted, and in keeping with the nursing home’s rules, it will be 30 days before Grant can see her, so she can “settle in.”

When he does visit, she has become emotionally attached to Aubrey, another resident. Aubrey is in a wheelchair and he’s married to Marian (Olympia Dukakis).

The film doesn’t try to explain how, but Fiona is able to get Aubrey out of the wheelchair and take some steps. He also begins using his hands to sketch simple but beautiful portraits of Fiona.

Grant comes every day to visit Fiona, and she only responds to her husband by saying, “You’re very persistent. I suppose you’ll be back tomorrow.”

When Aubrey leaves to return to his wife, Fiona begins to deteriorate quickly.

What do you do if you’re married for 40 years and in one month’s time your partner barely recognizes you? How do you respond to that?

What we witness is what happens when the unlikely combination of the aged and the unglued meet. The movie suggests more is involved in this process than the mind-ravaging and physical deterioration that is known as Alzheimer’s.

We get to piece some of the story together through flashbacks. In a humorous flashback scene, with Fiona’s narration, she describes her husband, a university professor, whose students — all women, all wearing sandals — are ready to put their toes on the first spot of skin above his sock-line. They all demand special attention, and Grant is an accommodating teacher.

This in turn raises the question of whether Fiona’s reaction is more complicated than just “Alzheimer’s.” Could this be one of the reasons why she doesn’t want to recognize Grant?

The near-silence of the film is broken by Olympia Dukakis and the nurse, a straight-speaking “American” who is also aware of the attachment between Fiona and Aubrey, and whose frank observations also give the story more weight and more sadness.

However, Julie Christie steals the show. She was able to look 40 and 70 at the same time. Her eyes feel like they hold every secret of the past 40 years. And when she speaks, she’s jarring in a matter-of-fact kind of way.

But be sure that no matter what Fiona’s level of clarity may be at any given moment, she won’t have it any other way but her own. We’re watching her will as a woman at work, and in an odd way, it seems perfectly reasonable for such sadness to ensue when you have to wait until you’re 70 or have Alzheimer’s to release all those violations of a 40-year union.