There is a theory that, in the event of a four-minute warning, phone lines will go into meltdown as people attempt to call partners, friends and family to tell them “I love you”. Away From Her is a film that carries the same sort of impact. Directed by actress Sarah Polley, it’s a delicate and lyrical tale about the effects of Alzheimer’s on a 44-year marriage. During their decades together, things between Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie) have not always been great however, time being a great healer (a painful irony in the circumstances), they’ve reached an understanding, an easy and tender relationship that knows where the weaknesses are and tiptoes around those thorny subjects.
It’s this painfully human relationship that gives Polley’s impressive film its emotional foundation. It would have been easier to pull at heartstrings and manipulate the audience but, instead, she gives her two excellent leads the chance to develop what is, to all intents, a real marriage. It’s this slow burn that makes the main theme even more heartbreaking. Fiona is gradually developing Alzheimer’s. At first, it was occasional memory lapses – covered with the canny use of post-it notes on cupboards – but now the problems are becoming more distinct. While she still has some sort of control, Fiona decides she wants to go to Meadowlake, a retirement home specialising in the disease. Grant doesn’t want her to go, but Fiona – while she can still be determined – doesn’t want to be a burden.
In order to let patients settle in, Meadowlake ask that they have no visitors for the first month. It’s a hellish time for Grant but he accepts it and, after 30 long days, returns. When he does, he discovers that Fiona has no memory of their marriage and has, instead, formed a bond with Aubrey (Michael Murphy), another patient. It’s a devastating change, for both Grant and the viewer. He becomes a visitor to both his wife and his marriage, unable to live without her, but tortured every day by her increasing bond to Aubrey. When Aubrey’s wife (Olympia Dukakis) takes her husband back home, Fiona goes into depression and her health declines rapidly, and there’s nothing – except a great act of self-sacrifice – that Grant can do.
While it’s exquisitely heartbreaking, Away From Her is also oddly uplifting, a reminder that life is both imperfect and short. There’s humour here too: just like life, it appears in the most unlikely of places. Most of all though, there are the central performances. Gordon Pinsent is magnificent, and the occasional crack in that craggy façade is a thousand times more effective than hysteria. Julie Christie though is even better. Her performance throws Helen Mirren’s award-winning triumph of elocution and make-up into sharp relief. Simply put, Christie gives the best performance of the year. Probably longer, in fact. If there was any justice, Christie should now be polishing an Oscar and adding it to a shelf-load of awards. Whatever the shortcomings of the various voting panels, please do not let this performance go unnoticed. Beautiful and tender, Away From Her will haunt your thoughts for days. Devastatingly real but simply wonderful.