Directed by: Sarah Polley
Premise: An older couple’s (Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie) relationship is strained when the wife is afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease and institutionalizes herself, only to lose memory of her marriage and begin a relationship with another patient.
What Works: Away From Her is a film of considerable intellectual and emotional weight. The picture takes on the toll of Alzheimer’s disease both on the afflicted and on their spouse, and it manages to track the progression of the disease and use it to raise questions about the nature of love and the how memory and accumulated experience create our identities. Despite its heavy subject matter, Away From Her is able to navigate through it without heaping on sentimentality and even managing to inject a dose of glib humor now and then that aids the characterization and makes the later drama even more heartbreaking. Julie Christie has received a lot of praise, and an Oscar nomination, for her performance in this film, and it’s all well deserved. The performance is carefully assembled and Christie is able to provide as complete a portrait of mental illness as has ever been seen on film. What is particularly significant about Christie’s performance and the film as a whole, is its humane treatment of the mentally ill. Although the film does not shy away from the character’s affliction, it also takes care to portray her as a dignified human being with emotional needs. Equally strong on screen is Gordon Pinsent as the husband struggling to redefine himself and his relationship to his wife in the wake of her condition. Pinsent nails the heartbreak of the disease’s affect on his companion and the story follows his process of letting go of the life he had with his wife. Another admirable quality of Away from Her is its treatment of love at an advanced age. The film is able to address the unique position of a couple who have been together for decades and does not downplay the intensity of their love simply because they are old. Instead, the film uses the weight of time and the couple’s dedication to each other to mount the heartbreak.
What Doesn’t: The ending of Away From Her is a bit open ended. It’s a satisfying conclusion to the story, although some audience members might be looking for more closure, especially in the relationship between the characters played by Pinsent and Olympia Dukakis, the wife of Julie Christie character’s new love.
DVD extras: Deleted scenes and a short film, I Shout Love.
Bottom Line: Away from Her is an extraordinary film about love and loss. The performances are very strong but what’s most impressive is the whole package and its ability to explore the pain of Alzheimer’s disease in a humane and therapeutic way.
Episode: #177 (February 3. 2008)