Away From Her

March 1, 2008

It was opening night for the critically acclaimed Canadian independent film Away From Her. Based on a short story by Alice Munro, the film is about a retired literature professor, Grant (played by Gordon Pinsent), and his wife, Fiona (played by Julie Christie), whose idyllic golden years together end when she succumbs to the ravages of Alzheimer dementia.

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.

It is Fiona who we then see poring through books that describe Alzheimer disease and its impact on the caring spouse, and it is she who decides that it is time for her to go to an assisted-living facility. The books on Alzheimer disease were Polley's idea and so was the even more remarkable flourish she added to the scene in which Fiona is left at the facility by Grant and is settled into her room. Polley's invention was to have Fiona ask Grant to make love to her and then leave. We are shown them embracing in the bittersweet aftermath as she tells him, "Now go!" It is a presentiment of another invented scene that comes later.

Polley's decision to invent and foreground the two postcoital moments in her film translates Munro's multilayered ironies into simplistic love story sentiments. Since film critics almost universally praise Away From Her, others have concluded that the cinematic translation works. What is lost, however, is the "shattering absurdity" that is Munro's genius and that makes her short story revelatory. As Munro looked over Grant's shoulder and saw life from his point of view-and her own-there is an extraordinary account of 30 years of sexual mores on college campuses and how the professor's sexual narcissism challenged his marriage. Munro described the era as an epidemic, like "Spanish flu," but different in that no one wanted to be left out. First, it was the wives of colleagues, which brought Jacqui to Grant, then it was the mature women going back to school who were ready to give their minds and bodies for a few words of praise from the great professor, and then it was the young female students who pronounced themselves mature and ready.

Grant serviced them all (not as many as some colleagues, he notes) and felt "duped" later when all those "willing" women decided they had actually been coerced and exploited. As this new feminist Victorianism took over, what for Grant had been a self-affirming experience became a reason for humiliation and social ostracism. Grant felt shame, not for what he had done, but for being duped. Out of those years in which he saw himself as giving to all those women rather than taking from them, he brought a new sense of resolve and repentance to his autumnal "love" of Fiona, thanking his stars that he had not lost her. Polley's screenplay could not accommodate most of this account; it is only suggested, but it is absolutely critical to Munro's ironic story and to Grant's narcissistic character.

When Fiona settles into the nursing home, she forgets her husband and forms an attachment to another man, Aubrey. Under the sentimental spell of the film, one might say she has fallen in love with another man. But, given what Munro has told us, her attentive attachment is more like what she felt for her Russian wolfhounds or what she might have felt for the child she never had. Or taking care of Aubrey and being needed by him might have warded off her own feelings of neediness and dependency.

In both the film and story versions, Fiona becomes inconsolable and begins to deteriorate when Aubrey's wife, Marian (played by Olympia Dukakis), who is, like Jacqui, another antithesis of Fiona-and this one déclassé-removes him from the nursing home.

Munro's nonchronological narrative (her style in this collection is a replication/exploration of memory) has Grant on his way to visit Marian almost from the start of the story. He has overcome his jealousy and resentment of Fiona's new attachment and wants to convince Marian to return Aubrey to the nursing home. Grant and Marian dislike each other at first sight. This woman reminds him of what his life might have been if he had not married up.

Marian dismisses him as a "jerk" but then, as a person whom Munro tells us could, in a crisis, "take the shoes off a dead body in the streets," leaves several messages on Grant's answering machine inviting him to a dance. What Munro thereafter only implies, Polley enacts in her second postcoital moment, in which first Marian and then Grant share with the camera a smile of self-satisfaction. Aubrey is going back to the nursing home. Grant has performed out of love for his wife. Here is how Munro described Grant's thoughts about this seduction, "it would be a challenge. A challenge and a credible feat. Also a joke that could never be confided to anybody-to think that by his bad behavior he'd be doing good for Fiona."

Polley's film ends like the short story, with Grant visiting his wife to tell her that Aubrey will be returning. But now Fiona's neural networks have lost Aubrey and have rediscovered her husband. She embraces and blesses him, "You could have just driven away... without a care in the world and forsook me. Forsooken me. Forsaken."

It is a moment of grace for Grant, perhaps even a moment of love, but expressed in Munro's story against a context of shattering, emotional absurdity that Polley distills for her audience into honey-coated platitude-love conquers all. Away From Her is not really a bad film, it just does not come close to the mind-bending wisdom of Alice Munro's story.