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Seattle Pacific University
Autumn 2007 | Volume 30, Number 2 | Books, Film, & Music

Response onScreen

Away From Her: Alzheimer’s and a Marriage

Scene from Away From Her
Julie Christie portrays a woman losing her memory to Alzheimer's in Away From Her Courtesy of LionsGate Entertainment.
Director Sarah Polley takes us to the frontlines of another battle in a movie called Away From Her.

Based on Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” Polley’s movie portrays the slow deterioration of a beautiful, intelligent woman under the influence of Alzheimer’s disease.

In what may be the most memorable and enchanting performance of 2007, Julie Christie plays Fiona as a warm-hearted, good-humored, three-dimensional beauty whose memories begin to fade. Fiona’s husband Grant, played with powerful restraint by Gordon Pinsent, fights to preserve their life together. But as her needs intensify, he realizes that he will have to surrender her to special care, and learn to live alone.

It is, in a sense, similar to last year’s mind-bending sci-fi film by Darren Aronofsky — The Fountain — in its lament over the seeming inevitability of death. But Polley’s work is even more poignant and powerful for its restraint, subtlety, and poetry.

Thanks to Polley’s delicate direction, Away From Her avoids the pitfalls of most “disease movies” in several ways. First, it focuses on Fiona’s beauty and personality, rather than exploiting the effects of her illness to shock and discomfort the audience. We are heartbroken, along with Fiona’s husband, at the thought of losing such a radiant human being. Secondly, Polley’s focus on the particularities of a deep-rooted marriage ground us in a human story, rather than becoming a speech on the general realities of people who suffer from Alzheimer’s.

In an era when marriage is usually portrayed as confining and damaging, it’s remarkable to see a married couple portrayed as faithful, patient, forgiving, and delighting in each other. Away From Her gives us a stronger appreciation of what is fragile and beautiful, rather than making us frightened of the forces that can take those things away.

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