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Mind matters

Movies | Passionate couple suffers through Alzheimer's in Away from Her

Issue: "Jerry Falwell," May 26, 2007

The heartbreak of losing a spouse is one thing. Quite another: The agony of losing only that spouse's mind. Away from Her, 28-year-old Sarah Polley's directorial debut, profiles the anguish of a husband watching his beloved wife of 44 years slowly slip behind the curtain of Alzheimer's disease.

Viewers receive only glimpses into the medical aspects of Alzheimer's, the slowly debilitating neurodegenerative disease that begins with memory loss and cognitive impairment and eventually leaves a patient with a barely functioning mind. Instead, Away from Her (rated PG-13 for sensuality and crude language) focuses on how Grant (Gordon Pinsent) copes with the declining health of his wife Fiona (Oscar-winning Julie Christie).

At first, Grant writes off Fiona's mishaps as forgetfulness common to her personality and age. When a diagnosis is finally made, Grant suffers stoically. In her lucid moments, Fiona appeals to Grant to accept the disease's ultimate outcome: "I think all we can aspire to in this situation is a little bit of grace."

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Modern films are filled with examples of relationships grown cold as couples age. Polley said she wanted to make a film that broke that stereotype.

The pair's measured resignation in the face of a future with the disease is beautifully contrasted by their raw passion for each other. When Fiona checks herself into the assisted-living center, they make love as a recommitment of that bond.

Grant's true test comes when, after a mandatory 30-day break from each other, he arrives at Fiona's new home to find she doesn't recognize him. The addled Fiona has transferred her affections for Grant onto another patient. At first, Grant handles this tension well, and then very poorly. Away from Her never flinches from the cold realities of the disease. Fiona's trajectory is set. Even when she recognizes him again near the end, everyone knows it's just a happy, fleeting moment.

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