Warning: if you are going to see this movie, bring a handkerchief. I do not want to sound sexist but if my wife is typical of most women, perhaps women should bring two.
Away from Her, now playing mostly in small, out of the way, artsy kinds of theaters, is an understated, poignant and memorable movie featuring actors from one of Hollywood’s most neglected demographic groups: sixty plus Americans. This is likely why this movie is playing in small, out of the way, artsy kinds of theaters. Because if you are in your teens, why on earth would you want to see a movie about some old lady with Alzheimer’s when instead can watch Tobey Maguire play Peter Parker one more time in Spider-Man III?
Here is a hint though to any teenage guy looking to win affections from a young lady by taking her to a movie: skip Spider-Man III and take her to Away from Her instead. This movie is way more romantic than Peter will ever get with Mary Jane. It is possible since you are new to this love business that you will find yourself a bit bored. Nevertheless, I will bet that your date will not be bored; at least not once she gets into the movie. Instead, she will be crying in buckets. If you play your cards right when you leave the theater you can say something like, “Gosh, if I ever get married I want to love my wife as least as much as Grant loves Fiona.” She will probably kiss you right there. I would then suggest taking her on a drive to Lover’s Lane to discuss the movie. Keep telling her how much you were touched by the movie. You may end up touching a lot more of her than you dared dream. (Bring protection, Big Guy.)
You may also discover something else you did not expect: two people can be way over the hill, still passionately in love with each other and, I know this is hard to believe, still sexy. At least you can make this statement if you are Julie Christie, who looks stunning at age 66. She plays Fiona, who has been married to Grant (Gordon Pinsent) for forty-five years. I know it is hard to fathom but you may be 66 one day too. Moreover, if your 66-year-old wife looks and acts like Julie Christie you will never be tempted by any other woman, even if she is half her age.
Sadly, except for a few flashbacks, the movie is mostly about Fiona’s decline as her brain wasting disease gradually takes its toll. Eventually her decline becomes more than Grant can handle, which is why they jointly and bravely make the decision to place her in an assisted living facility for Alzheimer’s victims. The institution is clean and as livable as such a place can be. However, it has a policy that in order for new residents to adjust, their spouse cannot visit for the first thirty days. Grant, who has rarely spent a night away from Fiona, is devastated. He is so happily married that living without her is a torment. After thirty days, the Fiona he finds barely remembers who he is. Due to her disease, she has become affectionate with a mostly wheelchair bound man with a vacant look (Michael Murphy). Poor hopelessly besotted Grant is placed in the unenviable role of finding ways to make his wife remember who he is when every day her long-term memory fades. He also becomes driven to continue to love her in the way that is best for her now, even though what is best for her is personally devastating to him.
You are probably thinking, “Gosh, this sounds like a pretty depressing movie. Why would I want to see something like this?” You see it in part because it is a parable, in part because the acting is so stellar and in part because it will open your heart to both the depth of human love and the depth of tragedy that can occur in a person’s decline.
Do not expect special effects, because there is none. Do not expect breathtaking vistas or award winning cinematography. Expect instead a love story that is flawlessly rendered by a 28-year-old first time movie director Sarah Polley. She seems wise beyond her years and is able to coax out subtle and understated performances from the whole cast.
If there is a problem with the movie, it may be that the devotion that Grant has for Fiona may leave you incredulous. Is it possible to love another human being that much? Perhaps yes if your 66 year old wife possesses such extraordinary physical beauty and is such a gifted, intelligent and passionate woman. We have not seen much of Julie Christie on the silver screen since she has aged, but she has proven that she is still a sensational actress. While it is hard to take your eyes off Julie Christie, do not give short shrift to Gordon Pinsent’s subtle portrayal of Grant and his utter devastation as the woman he loves slips away from him.
For a romantic chick flick, you do not need to search the oldies section of your local Blockbuster for the sappy 1970 movie Love Story. Away from Her is much better, not to mention far more plausible. For some reason love feels more authentic when the participants are old married farts, as these two are, then when they are star crossed lovers.
I give it 3.3 stars on my 4.0 scale.