“Away from Her” is Sarah Polley’s feature-length directorial debut. Although she isn’t new in cinema industry as she’s been acting at the age of four, she started her directing career in 1999 where she made short films. “Away from Her” is an adaptation of Alice Munro’s short story entitled “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”. The movie had won seven Genie awards, one of which was Best Motion Picture and received universal acclaim from critics. Her second film entitled “Take this Waltz” didn’t win any awards for best picture but the actress who portrayed the main character, Michelle Williams, won Hollywood Actress Award in 2011 and Best Actress award in 2012 (San Diego Film Critics Society). Her third film, “Stories We Tell” was a documentary which explores her family’s secrets. Polley discovered as an adult that the man who raised her wasn’t her biological dad. The documentary won several awards, best Canadian film at the Toronto Film Critics Association Awards, best feature-length documentary at the 1st Canadian Screen Awards among others. Polley was born in Toronto, Ontario. Youngest of five children, parents were also involved in the cinema industry.
With the movie “Away from Her”, Polley was able to portray well how “for better, for worse, in sickness and in health”, marriage vows that we often hear, really mean. She was able to remind the audience of what great love and marriage is about, that marriage is tested through time. The movie is about what a person with Alzheimer’s disease go through and the impact on their loved ones. Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie) Andersson have been married for forty-four years. A marriage that was tested through time, there were some suggestions that Grant cheated on Fiona when he was still a University professor. “you never left me. You still made love to me, despite disturbing demands elsewhere… I think you did alright, compared to some of your colleagues. Those who left their wives.” He retired and lived a new life with Fiona, moved to a cottage by the lake where they cross country ski. Everything was normal until Fiona was showing signs of having “cloudy” memory. Tried to put away a frying pan in the fridge, forgetting what wine is called “would anybody want some more? (long pause) then whispers “ween” then wai.. wain..” and losing her way back home after cross country skiing by herself. Grant was in denial at first about his wife’s condition “if we do think of it, if we do, then it must be as something that isn’t permanent. A kind of experimental treatment or a rest cure of sorts.” and he believes Fiona is too young to be suffering from Alzheimer’s, “I’ve been told that Alzheimer’s can’t be confirmed until after…”. Fiona tried convincing Grant that it is normal “We are at that stage Grant, we are at that stage. Fiona admitted herself to a nearby nursing facility for people suffering Alzheimer’s disease (Meadowlake). Grant tried convincing Fiona of not going but she insisted. They havent been away from each other since they got married. “We haven’t been apart for a month for the last 44 years. It could be quite something”. Grant wasn’t allowed to visit Fiona for 30 days, a Meadowlake’s policy to get the patients settled in. During those days, Grant was researching about his wife’s condition, while Fiona, on the other hand is developing a friendship with another patient, Aubrey. Finally, 30 days have past and Grant prepared for it well, as if it was their first date, he even bought flowers. Sadly, Fiona didn’t recognize him and thought he is a new resident. Grant became one of the most frequent visitors, each day he sees his wife taking care of a stranger as if taking care of her own husband. He couldn’t stand it at first and was alarmed and started asking nurse Kristy if anyone develops intimate relationship in the facility. He was finally appeased when Aubrey had to leave the facility, or he thought so. Aubrey’s absence made Fiona depressed and made her condition worse. Grant was then advised by Kristy that Fiona will be transferred to the second floor, unit where patients who completely “lost it” stay, if there’s no improvement. Desperate on delaying his wife’s move to the second floor of Meadowlake, Grant went to meet Marian, Aubrey’s wife. He came to ask if he can take Aubrey to Meadowlark once more but Marian disapproved and thinks he is a jerk for thinking of doing so. Marian’s lonesomeness led her in inviting Grant to a dance and from there on, it changes everything and she finally agreed with Grant taking Aubrey to Meadowlake. Movie ended when Grant was about to show Fiona his surprise (Aubrey), Fiona’s memories of him came back. “I seem to remember you reading this to me. You were trying to make me feel better. You tried so hard. You’re a lovely man you know? I’m a very lucky woman.”
Julie Christie who played the role of Fiona Andersson is a friend of Polley. She initially declined taking the role but after months of persuasion, she finally took it. She did good in portraying the role, her emotions can be seen from her eyes, the look of confusion when she tries to remember things, how effective Gordon Pinsent, who portrayed the role of Grant and Julie Christie in making the audience feel what the characters feel. It was an eye opener, although majority knows what Alzheimers is, some, including myself, doesn’t know the struggle of the loved ones who takes care of the individual who has the disease. With Pinsent’s portrayal, the fear of the husband losing his wife and see her health deteriorate was felt. Pinsent was recognized from his portrayal of the role in the movie and was awarded Outstanding male performance (ACTRA award) and Best Performance by an Actor in a leading role (Genie Award).
The cinematography was effective in sending the message of the film to the audience especially from a young director and for someone’s first feature-length directorial. Polley used a lot of close up shot at the beginning of the movie draws the viewer’s attention to the piece of paper which seems to be an address of someone named Marian which then focuses on Grant and used dissolve to give the viewers a bit of background. The voice over of Grant talking to Nurse Kristy about how they got married was used while showing the viewers the young Fiona in slow motion. Dissolves once more to show how they are now, used a long shot image of two individuals cross country skiing. The paths states how close they are, indicating intimacy or close relationship of the two. The mise en scene and the low key lighting used during the first interacting scene of the two characters gives the viewers the feel that they are intimate and happy. The candle light dinner, dim light suggests intimacy. The same dining area was used when Grant and Fiona were talking about her going to the nursing home. Low key lighting was used but the table is empty, the half-covered windows, and characters’ blocking gives the scene a feeling of sadness. The use of negative space emphasized character’s worries- Grant returning the frying pan in the cupboard which Fiona put in the freezer. It gives the audience the feel that Grant is starting to worry about his wife’s behaviour. The first few scenes in the film were all in low key lighting as Polley is introducing the characters as intimate couple. The use of push-in every time Fiona forgets something-Fiona trying to think of the word wine and when she was skiing by herself, gives the audience an idea of how confused she is and suggests her condition which will lead the characters to seek medical attention. Voice overs were mostly used in the film to elaborate further on the scenario. When Fiona was trying to recall what wine is called, voice over was used and shifts frame to when she was skiing by herself looking confused and shifts it back to a close up shot of Fiona while saying “ I think I may be beginning to disappear.” It was also used when Fiona was reading about her disease and the audience sees a pan on a stove with no water, probably been boiling for a while till the water evaporated. It was Polley’s way of portraying that Fiona and Grant were visualizing how their life is gonna be in the future. If written literary piece have metaphors, Polley used voice overs. Spiral shot was used when Grant was observing on his first visit in Meadowlake, showing the audience what he sees. Giving the audience of a feel of what Grant is seeing and possibly what he feels. Close up was used again when Fiona tells Grant “I’d like to make love and then I’d like you to go” focusing on Fiona’s emotion while saying these words. The sadness in her eyes, the emotions that she’s holding back. The vertical panning after that which implies that they made love and showing what appears to be naked Fiona and Grant with just his undershirt, the non-diagetic sound that makes the scene seems emotional. Panning was also used on Fiona’s first few days in Meadowlake, showing nurse Kristy introducing her to Aubrey, it then dissolves and shows Grant on how he deals life without Fiona. Voiceover was used again showing him reading about his wife’s condition in a low key lighting, showing how comfortable he is in his bed. Shifting to a different frame showing Grant wiping dishes, with the negative space and lighting, indicates his lonesomeness without Fiona. An extreme long shot of the frozen lake with Grant skiing and fading from one end to the other, suggests Fiona’s memory slowly fading. The part where Grant’s voiceover says “It is like a series of circuit breakers in a large house, flipping off one by one” then later shows a house with lights flipping off one by one, suggests a visual of what Grant is talking about. Grant’s blocking when he was told that Fiona is going to be moved to the second floor suggests his despair, audience can feel his pain and sorrow as he feels helpless. He was so certain that his wife won’t be moved to the second floor and how he is actually facing that situation and he can’t do anything about it. With actor’s effective acting and the cinematography put together, it was easy for the audience to connect into what is happening in the film. Audience can feel what the characters feel.
Away from Her reminds me of the movie “The Vow” it’s about a couple who are deeply in love with each other, got married, and things were doing great till they got into an accident and the wife can’t remember her husband. It was painful thing to experience. The movie also shows how the husband tried his very best to get his wife’s memory back but in doing so, it made them grew apart. The gap between them grew bigger and bigger. It’s somehow similar to what happened to Grant and Fiona. Grant’s trying to tell Fiona that he is his husband when he saw Fiona wearing a sweater that isn’t hers thinking something is going on between her and Aubrey. Their distance grew while doing so. When the husband is finally giving up and just want their wife to be happy, the wives remember them all of a sudden. I would definitely suggest watching this movie to people who want to remind themselves of how marriage is and great love. Marriage isn’t something that you drop when things aren’t working right. You try to mend things out, you remind yourselves of the vows you made when you got married, “through sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, till death do us part”.