There is a town in north Ontario,
With dream comfort memory to spare,
And in my mind
I still need a place to go,
All my changes were there.
—Neil Young, “Helpless”
I’m going, but not gone.
—Fiona (Julie Christie)
Away from Her begins very close to her. At least, this is how Grant Andersson (Gordon Pinsent) imagines himself, close to his luminous wife Fiona (Julie Christie). They’ve been married 44 years. At film’s start, he’s driving and speaking, in voiceover. “She said,” he remembers, “‘Do you think it’d be fun if we got married?” I took her up on it, I never wanted to be away from her.” Now, he faces exactly that prospect: Fiona is moving away—from him.
While the change is precisely chosen, Grant’s memories are selective, like all memories. Still, he has them and they flood toward him seemingly unbidden, rendered in home-movieish close-ups of Fiona’s very youthful face, when she was his student and bride to be, or in moments of their late-life closeness, making dinner or cross-country skiing near their home, tucked away in snowy northern Ontario. At the same time, Fiona is losing her memories of Grant. In the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, Fiona gradually forgets him, their life together, even their home, which she loves dearly. He remembers that she’s putting the frying pan away in the freezer. But he hopes that she will recover, that the change is not permanent, the way their life will be from now on.
Fiona, however, has done research, and anticipates more loss. “I think I’m beginning to disappear,” she says, with some fear in her voice, but mostly, with seeming insight. In Sarah Polley’s first feature—which she adapted from a short story by Alice Munro, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”—Fiona’s loss, the very process of losing, is conveyed in delicate fragments. Mostly filtered through Grant’s longing, Fiona is lovely and poignant, if increasingly uncertain. Grant realizes that his own identity—once so independent and predictably selfish—is wrapped up in hers, and it frightens him to lose that part of himself. This even when, or perhaps especially when, she does remember emotional details, the pain she felt when he embarked on serial relationships with his English class students, younger and blonder and wearing sandals, their marriage throughout the 1960s wracked with aches and promises.
As much as Grant tries to preserve his life with Fiona, she sees her future differently. “When I look away, I forget what yellow means,” she murmurs. But even if she can “look again,” to rediscover yellow, she also comprehends what’s inevitable. “There’s something delicious in oblivion,” she asserts. Grant’s face falls, as if he feels she’s doing this to him. In part, as he eventually confesses to Kristy (Kristen Thomson), the managing nurse at the facility Fiona finds for herself, he believes her forgetting is a “charade,” and moreover, “a kind of punishment” for his past infidelities and self-indulgence. Kristy sees in his response the sort of self-interest that can hardly be helped, but she also advises him that this is precisely when he must put Fiona’s needs before his own, to let her go.
The home, named Meadowlake, lays out what’s coming in a disturbingly orderly fashion: Fiona, instructs the efficient, seen-it-all director Madeleine (Wendy Crewson) during their initial visit, will go through stages. The facility is designed to accommodate these stages, indeed, to ease her way into forgetting, making it more comfortable for her without much regard for him. To that end, Grant is told he cannot see Fiona during her first month at the facility; as Polley acknowledges in an interview with Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross, such enforced separation is not typical in Canadian public facilities; rather, it is, Polley says, “an important device in the film.” As such, it underscores Grant’s experience of abrupt severance, as well as his feeling that Fiona is looking for a way to move on without him.
When he protests the facility, suggesting they find another, she philosophizes. “I don’t think we should be looking for something we like,” she says, “All we can hope for is a bit of grace.” Grant accedes, grumbling. And when at last he sees Fiona again, she is transformed. It’s a bit of a jump, her newly established relationship with fellow resident Aubrey (Michael Murphy). But it makes the thematic point acutely: Grant comes to understand and even feel another sort of love for his wife, an unconditional and generous love that has no need of her acknowledgment or desire. It’s nearly impossible. Grant hardly finds solace in learning that the disease proceeds “like a series of circuit breakers in a very large house, going off one by one.” But he sees it, with each visit, as Fiona recedes from him.
And so, Grant finds himself, or rather, another version of himself who is unfamiliar, consciously attuned to Fiona’s ever more distant rhythms. He watches her watch TV, or hover over Aubrey as he plays cards. When she spends any brief moment with Grant, Aubrey moans in upset, and she returns to him, looking after him. Grant’s own erstwhile romance with Fiona was, he sees, tangled in his own sensibility and projection. At first he struggles to preserve this, bringing along books for her to read, reminders of her Icelandic origins, which he imagines tie her back to him: he brings grand photo books and Auden’s Letters from Iceland, from which he reads, not completely patiently, as if to reignite the past he seeks. But she’s gone somewhere else, wearing sweaters he deems “tacky” (that is, not her previous taste, which matched his), and found another enraptured audience for what Grant calls her “spark of life.”
In his pursuit of his Fiona, Grant visits Aubrey’s wife Marian (Olympia Dukakis), who is, in her way, also troubled by the new relationship, as it means her previous life is now lost. She looks on Grant with skepticism (“What a jerk,” she sighs, while closing her front door after their first meeting), but also understands his grief, as it matches hers. Lonely in their own ways, Marian and Grant resent the constant present in which their spouses now reside, yet it is where they are. “It’s life,” says Marian, “You can’t beat life.” More precisely, it’s a movie, life refracted. Both careful and contrived, Away from Her paints marriage as a series of losses, fulfillments, and compromises, infinitely rewarding and painful.