I was already crying yesterday, so I decided I might as well watch Away From Her. What a delightful treat. More so because of the contrast with so many films which turn out to be such a waste of time.
This movie compels with the
- setting - scenes of snow and shadows;
- acting - expressive faces conveying pain, bewilderment, longing;
- dialogue - even the littlest bit conveys so much.
By the way this story is closely based on an Alice Munro short story, The Bear Came Over the Mountain. If you're not familiar with this short story writer you should be (along with William Trevor).
For those unaware of the plot - Fiona realizes she is sick with Alzheimer's and decides to put herself into a home to save her husband from the burden of caring for her. They've been married forty-four years, and she is younger than most dealing with this disease. Grant's desire and need to hold onto Fiona drives the narrative, and it's not just the disease that gets in the way.
What I loved most about the film - and I loved so much about it - was the contemporary twist on chivalry. Grant turns out to be a traditional knight. The movie makes clear he had been a rake, a philandering professorial husband. But his love for his wife makes him self-sacrificing in the most troubadour, romantic tradition. A recurring theme of romantic love is giving up the one you love for their happiness. And this story offers a beautiful modern rendition of that.
Both Fiona and Grant love books and words, and I loved the fact that poetry was woven into the story as well as the manner in which it was. Auden and Ondaatje both are, in the words of another blogger, "sprinkled into the script like shards of crystalline beauty."
These scenes, and there are a few, reveal who these people are, what this couple is like and how they interact but also simply why poetry appeals. I have on my guest room wall (also my study) these words from Octavio Paz: "Beauty is not in what the words say but in that which they say without saying it. Not naked, but through a veil, breasts become desirable."
Here's Ondaatje, from the Cinnamon Peeler, used in the film: "When we swam once/I touched you in the water/and our bodies remained free/you could hold me and be blind of smell/You climbed the bank and said/this is how you touch other women.../And you searched your arms/for the missing perfume."
I tried to find some of the poems read by Grant to his wife. But none of the "Letters From Iceland" appear in my 800 page collection of Auden poems and a search on Amazon revels they are available to buy for about $300.00. I'm going to have to replay those scenes and transcribes myself.
The chivalry and the poetry are the elements that distinguish this excellent film. But the acting is also outstanding by the principles - Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent. Both have such eyes! The smaller performances - Olympia Dukakis - as expected are always good. An outstanding performance by Grace Lynn Kung who plays Nurse Betty really stands out. One of my favorite moments is when Nurse Betty twists Grant's shallow observations on the difference between young and old to a difference of gender perceptions.
The remarkable script is noteworthy as well. Sarah Polley, an actress in her 20s, adapted and wrote the screenplay as well as directed. She respects her audiences' intelligence, but the dialogue - how what is said conveys deeper meaning both by the choice of words and the character of them. Words can be tentative, strong, humorous, biting. And the dialogue here communicates layers of meaning.
A scene at Fiona and Grant's kitchen table, when he suggests that she go to the place temporarily, is extraordinary. The viewer knows that it isn't temporary and also that both Fiona and Grant know that too - but its too painful to think or say otherwise. They both understand that and we do too, thanks to the writing.
KD Lang's Helpless runs over the credits. And I would have thought that just too too much, but the melody is beautiful.
Don't miss "Away From Her." To see the movie preview and read the New York Times review here.