Forgetting to Know You
In Alice Munro's sensitive and sparse short story "The Bear Went Over the Mountain," an elderly couple descends into the bewildering world of Alzheimer's disease, where Fiona's gradual affliction affects her and husband Grant's picturesque retirement on the edge of a frozen lake in Ontario. That scenic life changes quickly as Fiona moves to the Meadowlake care facility. Much of the story is told with subtle, cloudy flashbacks to early in their long marriage, scenes from when she lost grip on her memory and when she could no longer remember Grant.
Canadian actress Sarah Polley must have recognized that Munro's nonlinear plot suited the story's emotional needs, perfectly capturing the essence of Fiona and Grant's enduring love and heartbreak. Polley makes her feature debut as writer and director with Away From Her, her adaptation of the story that maintains Munro's pleating of the present with distant and not so distant memories. The movie begins and ends with Fiona in Meadowlake, but the scenes in between show how she got there and give a glimpse of where Grant is going.
Away opens near the end of the story: Grant (Gordon Pinsent) drives a pickup down a Canadian road toward the house of Aubrey, a man Fiona fell in love with at Meadowlake. A flashback cuts to a beautiful young Fiona with wind-swept blond hair saying, "Do you think it'll be fun if we got married?" Grant, handsome with his professorial gray hair and light brown scruff, says of his wife then, "She had the spark of life."
In the next shot, Grant and Fiona (Julie Christie) cross-country ski across the frozen lake outside their doorstep; they branch off in different directions and later return in parallel paths toward home. These first few minutes reveal both the near end of the story and the beginning of their love.
The luminous Christie plays Fiona with a childlike wonder behind her sparkling blue eyes and wrinkled face. (Why can't more actresses see that age is a beautiful measure of confidence and experience?) Her puff of spun blond and silver hair and enviable trim figure can't keep the workings of her mind from betraying her: As Grant stands behind her at the first moment of memory loss, Fiona places a clean pan in the freezer after dinner; he waits for her to leave the room, then retrieves the pan from its misplaced home. And with these individual actions, the couple begins a journey that takes them not just forward in their life together and their lives apart but backward, too, sometimes to memories they'd both rather forget.
Alzheimer's is a tricky thief, with no standard for what memories it steals. And Away is no sentimental look at old people: Fiona and Grant are shown in bed, loving each other in a rarely seen glimpse of mature physical passion. When Fiona makes the decision to move to Meadowlake, she needs Grant's concession, even as he begs her for more time. The flighty, lovely Fiona stands her ground and the solid mass of Grant crumbles.
Fiona's first month in Meadowlake passes without visitors--the facility's rules--and she meets temporary patient Aubrey (Michael Murphy), a nearly comatose wheelchair-bound mute. She becomes attached to him, and he with her. Once allowed to visit, a surprised and hurt Grant befriends the sympathetic nurse Kristy (played with full Canadian accent by Kristen Thomson), who helps him navigate not just the foreign terrain of the disease but also his emotional refusal to let Fiona go.
During the movie, we are brought back to the beginning when Grant introduces himself to Marian (played by Olympia Dukakis with a determination and reservation that nears grace), Aubrey's wife. Aubrey is back at home now, and Marian is prickly and defensive, not sure of what Grant may accuse her husband.
By then, Grant is a different man than the one who made love to his wife in her room in Meadowlake before leaving her there--less selfish, less hopeful. His change, in part, is because of his conversations with Kristy. During one of those, Grant pities her--her husband left her to raise their kids alone--and Kristy bites back that she imagines he might not have always been the devoted husband he is now. But real love, regardless of pain, is endurance.
And therein lies the rub: What can/will/would Grant do for Fiona now, as her memories of him fade and her attachment to Aubrey solidifies? The tears on the screen are few in this amazing debut, but that doesn't mean the hearts aren't heavy.