Away From Her had a sense of realism for which I was unprepared. The characters could be your parents, grandparents, or aunts and uncles. This could be your life. The suspended belief is removed leaving only a raw, uncomfortable feeling.
Away from her is a phrase the main character uses when he is telling people how he and his wife got engaged. "I never wanted to be away from her." But that is exactly what is going to happen, for Fiona is showing the signs of forgetfulness and fading common in a person with Alzheimer's Disease. Fiona wants to be checked into a nursing home. Grant, her husband, is clearly fazed by the thought of them being separated, but Fiona insists. I am not sure why she insists. Usually we think of family deciding they can't handle an individual, not the individual deciding she doesn't want to be handled.
Grant checks her into a nursing home. To his dismay, they have a first 30 days "no visitor" policy, which means he has to cope without her physically for a month. Gordon Pinsent, who plays Grant, is an actor with a stoic face, but under the surface we can see he is beside himself with loss at this change. Julie Christie as Fiona fades into her character so well you forget she is an actor.
Scenes of this story are interjected with another story as Grant and another woman are having coffee. They seem to be making small talk, but there is another dialogue going on underneath simultaneously. Grant seems to be asking something of Marian, but what?
While Grant waits for the 30 days to be up, he keeps himself occupied. Then, like a breathless lover, he begins coming every day to visit his wife bearing flowers. But the greatest wound of all is to come: Fiona does seem to remember she knows him, but in a distant way. Instead, she has latched on to another male patient named Aubrey. Even when her husband comes to visit (it is unclear whether she realizes he is her husband), she refuses to leave Aubrey's side. As her memories fade, Grant is away from her not just physically, but mentally as well. There is no remedy for this separation.
Grant watches with pain, then confusion, and then acceptance at this new turn of events. He watches her on a couch to the side, almost like a parent watching a son or daughter when they start preschool. He only interferes with her a few times, none of which prove successful.
What does Grant want to happen? What do we want to happen? Grant's instinct is to grab possessively onto Fiona, but he also knows she is truly fading to him. Will he lose her forever by latching on too tight? These questions will keep you riveted to this movie, which only lasts 110 minutes.
Throughout this movie, I had so much pity for Grant, even when we discover he was not always the devoted husband he is now. I had an aunt with Alzheimer's, and I remember just how painful it was to know she did not recognize me. But this was a husband and wife, one of the most sacred relationships out there (only 2nd to mother and child).
The Canadian setting is also lovely and provides many thoughtful moments. I saw this movie in a small theater, but I would recommend this to all married couples. You will learn what unconditional love is all about. When you truly love someone, you are never separated from your loved one. When you try and hold on, you will lose every time. I wish I could tell you how that is demonstrated, but the way Grant ultimately demonstrates his love for Fiona is so surprising and touching that it might lose impact if known beforehand.