The theater that night was packed with aging adults and there seemed to be a mood of purposeful intensity. Looking around, one had to believe that not all these senior citizens were there because they were fans of Julie Christie (who received an Oscar nomination for her performance) and Alice Munro. Was it the dread of Alzheimer disease that had brought them? Many from the expanding white-haired demographic were in attendance, an audience familiar with "senior moments" and "where-did-I-park-the-car" experiences. Alice Munro is herself an older person, as is this reviewer. At a certain age, people may begin to worry that their bodies might outlast the neural networks in their brains. This can be most distressing to those whose self-esteem is founded on their intellect, whose self-respect is measured by their self-control, and whose personal dignity is more important than life itself. They are the people who would prefer physician- assisted suicide to a nursing home with a life of dementia, incontinence, and dependency.
One could easily imagine that the crowd cramming the theater that night was there to see up on the screen what their own future might hold. If they were secretly hoping for some kind of reassurance, Away From Her provides it. This is a film that allows people to believe that it is possible to "go gently into that good night" without the stench of incontinence and without losing dignity. Julie Christie's character, even with dementia, is beautiful, a radiant presence, and if she has "lost her mind" and no longer recognizes her husband, she is still a "real lady"—her good manners and personal dignity never fail her.
Director Sarah Polley's coup in casting Julie Christie as Fiona brought instantaneous credibility, but the actress's cinematic beauty pro- jects a sense of self-possession and command that overshadows her performance. Her Fiona is in control, she is able to remember and recognize the significance of her forgettings, and she is the one who decides it is time for her to enter the assisted-living facility over the objections of her husband. Much of this is in Munro's story, but Christie's patrician beauty never really withers, and although it was recently nominated for the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, Polley's screenplay seems intended to accommodate her star instead of coming to grips with the reality of dementia. This is a film about the miracle of Julie Christie's beauty.
The bear came
Alice Munro's short story, "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," which was first published in the New Yorker, was the last in her 2001 collection, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. The film's title is taken from a line in the story describing Grant's response to 18-year-old Fiona's off-hand proposal as they stood on the beach at Port Stanley and
"the waves delivered crashing loads of gravel at their feet. 'Do you think it would be fun... if we got married?' He took her up on it, he shouted yes. He wanted never to be away from her. She had the spark of life."
As in this brief section, most of the story is told from the husband's point of view but not necessarily in his actual words or thoughts. It is as though Munro is looking over his shoulder and into his soul and has been there all his life.
Munro can summon up a character in a single sentence. About Fiona's mother she writes, "Her mother was Icelandic—a powerful woman with a froth of white hair and indignant far-left politics." This sentence helps us understand Fiona's character, as do others, with telling significance that is missing from the film—most important, that Fiona was childless and lavished her affection on Boris and Natasha, her Russian wolfhounds; that her father was a distinguished cardiologist and she worked as a volunteer at his hospital where "people had real problems"; that she resisted the epidemic of sexual liberation that swept across university faculty and students while Grant did not; and that Grant, who became a professor specializing in Anglo-Saxon Nordic literature, had "married up" and was welcomed to the college in part because of his father-in-law's money.
These details place both characters in a context that brings them and their relationship to life. And one could certainly not describe "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" as the poignant and almost sentimental love story that is Away From Her.
The bear went
"The Bear Came Over the Mountain" is a paraphrase of a children's folk song. With her subtle twist on the familiar, Munro conveys a threat. Rather than accepting the Western convention of love, her story puts it to the test. From that first proposal to Grant's year-long affair with Jacqui Adams—"She was the opposite of Fiona—short, cushiony, dark-eyed, effusive"—to his dalliances with students during which he "never stopped making love to Fiona in spite of disturbing demands elsewhere"; all of this was accomplished with the sense that the wife he was deceiving knew nothing.
Then, Grant's philandering gets him pushed into early retirement, where he and Fiona settle into a pleasant life together, a seemingly harmonious attachment. Munro's story subjects this relationship and the "actuality" of love to an even more exacting test: What happens to "love" when Alzheimer disease causes Fiona to forget who Grant is, and what happens to Grant's "love" when he is forced to realize that he has been forgotten? This analysis is misleadingly complicated and heavy-handed; it should be understood that Munro's brilliant, simple, and clear writing tells us a story we could not have imagined, but one we immediately recognize as true. Munro is not only a great short story writer, she is a superb psychologist as well.
It is obvious that Sarah Polley, a 28-year-old actress and first-time director, has carefully studied Munro's story. What is nonetheless missing is what one literary critic described, using Munro's own words, as her gift for revealing to us the "shameless, marvelous, shattering absurdity" of life. Instead of questioning the convention of love, Polley embraced it and presents it to us as the premise of her film. Gordon Pinsent as Grant is deeply in love with his wife Fiona. We see them in an idyllic setting; they spend their days cross-country skiing in a wintry Canadian landscape and their nights nestled into their tastefully furnished farmhouse.
In the movie we are shown the signs of Alzheimer disease that were described by Munro. Fiona puts a frying pan in the freezer and fails to realize what she is doing while her husband ruefully watches. While dining with another couple she offers to refill their glasses but then has a humiliating senior moment when she cannot remember the word "wine." And finally, when she goes out cross-country skiing by herself she loses her way and does not know how to get back to the home where she has lived for years. When Fiona falls back, exhausted and helpless, and the camera pans down from the sky, the snowy landscape seems to be the outward manifestation of a mind emptied of meaningful landmarks.