If you are a citizen of the United States, you will celebrate the Fourth of July this Monday and enjoy a three-day weekend. If you are a citizen of Canada, you will celebrate Canada Day on 1 July this Friday and enjoy a three-day weekend. If you are lucky enough to have dual citizenship, then you can revel in your glorious four-day weekend.
For those of you looking for some viewing pleasure this Canada Day, let me recommend Sarah Polley’s excellent Away From Her (2006). Based on the Canadian author Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” Away From Her synchronizes the enormity of time and space within personal memory and interpersonal relationships. This film, which earned Polley an Oscar nod for best screenplay (based on work previously produced or published), has hopefully established Polley as a talent who will be given further opportunities to craft excellent films.
Polley, a Canadian, seems to have intuitively grasped Munro’s fiction and was able do deftly convert it to film without losing the essence of the story. I have long felt that space, the immense empty distances of Canadian geography, have supplied Munro’s works with critical importance. Munro, who uses the short story as her modus operandi, fits in large tracts of land, sea, and sky into her fiction and makes us, the readers, witness to the ways in which we must negotiate these spaces with others. Munro often ironically juxtaposes enormity of the Canadian landscape with the often confining, sometimes suffocating, nature of personal relationships.
Polley seems to have astutely grasped many of these facets of Munro’s fiction. Her landscape shots, many of which occur at winter, are often visually inviting and lovely, yet they are imposing in how they can insinuate loss, loneliness, and the unknown. A trail of snowshoe tracks leading into the Ontario wild prove quite powerful.
Away From Her revolves around a married couple, Fiona and Grant Anderson. Fiona, played by the still sexy Julie Christie, displays the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Fiona and Grant (Gordon Pinsent) must interrupt their forty plus year marriage as Fiona checks into a facility that specializes in treating patients who suffer from Alzheimer’s and dementia. Gordon is reluctant and fears that the time and space apart (again, geography is crucial) will permanently sever their loving, marital ties.
We are given hints that the outward appearance of happy, loving marriage might only be as solid as surface ice. During long drives, Fiona brings back memories of infidelities that Grant, a college professor, had committed. Though it appears that Grant quit indulging in such philandering activities, he remains troubled that Fiona, who is need of assistance due to Alzheimer’s is clearly capable of remembering those past episodes.
We can vaguely surmise that either Fiona chooses to belatedly punish Grant or that these episodes were so strong that they were able to feverishly linger as other memories vanished. In either scenario, Fiona checks into a nursing home due to Alzheimer’s as she is ironically capable of clearly remembering a hurtful past.
Grant’s fears about losing Fiona arrive at fruition,when, after 30 days of not seeing her, he arrives at the nursing home and Fiona barely notices. Instead, she directs her attentions to another man, Aubrey Barque (Michael Murphy), who is bound to a wheel chair and barely capable of escaping a near comatose state. When Aubrey leaves the facility, Fiona becomes distraught, and Grant painfully reconciles himself that to make Fiona happy and comfortable, he must no longer see himself as Fiona’s husband. He arranges for her to meet Aubrey once again, which delights Fiona.
Christie, who earned an Oscar nomination for her performance, remains as breathtaking as she did in Doctor Zhivago (1965). Her performance never gives away anything. Much like her husband, we can never be certain how much of her behavior is intentionally punishing him for his past misdeeds and how much is a result of the Alzheimer’s. And as sad as her situation is, she never comes across as a victim. Away From Her does not ask us to lament Fiona’s position. This is not a disease of the week film in which we are spurred to find the cure. Rather, we have to understand Fiona, and, like Grant, choose how to respond to her. At the end of the film, we are left with a relationship held together by a love strong enough to give itself up to the demands of life.
I recently finished Munro’s “Gravel,” a short story that appears in the June 27, 2011 issue of The New Yorker. Emotionally, I felt that same at the end of that story as I did at the end of Polley’s Away From Her, which hopefully speaks well of both Munro and Polley, two of Canada’s great artists.