k.d. lang sings Neil Young’s words for ‘Helpless’ at the end of Sarah Polley’s wonderful film Away From Her (a recording taken from her album of Canadian songs entitled ‘Hymns of the 49th Parallel’). Young’s words are powerfully suggestive of the emotions in the film and the cover of k.d. lang’s album could be a still from the film.
I was certainly helpless from about twenty minutes in when I began to weep (possibly as the strains to ‘Harvest Moon’ started on the soundtrack) and couldn’t stop throughout the rest of the film. I had approached the screening with much trepidation. Like most people my age I’ve had some experience of Alzheimer’s disease in the family and the prospect of Julie Christie gradually deteriorating was worrying to say the least. But what I watched was a sensitive and moving story of a marriage which was not sentimental or romantic, but nevertheless optimistic.
On reflection, this is a film in which a quartet (or possibly a quintet) of women effectively help a man to come to terms with being parted from his partner of 44 years (i.e. being ‘away from her’). Some of the women help with compassion, the care home manager is coldly (and irritatingly) efficient, another woman is ‘plain talking’. The chief nurse is the compassionate one – but is also to the point in her criticism of him. And at the centre is Fiona (Julie Christie) devastatingly beautiful and knowing, even as her hold on memory unravels. The man, Grant (a great performance of bewilderment by the veteran Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent), worries that she may be putting on an act — and perhaps she is because she does manage to get him to question what he has done during the marriage.
I’ve read some interesting reviews, including one on the Village Voice website by Ella Taylor. I haven’t see too many comments about the style of the film, except to suggest that it is ‘conservative’. I think it is probably a good idea for a first time director to be cautious in presenting a story, so that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The overwhelming sense is of whiteness, blankness and cold, which seems appropriate. The only visual flourish I remember is the series of cross-fades which removes the visiting relatives from the dining tables in the care home — an appropriate and effective device.
I don’t think I’ve read any of Alice Munro’s short stories (this film is adapted from ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’), but this reminds me of other Canadian women writers. There is something of Carol Shields and Margaret Atwood in it — and also something older and more Nordic (perhaps it’s the landscape). Fiona is supposed to be from Icelandic stock and Grant reads to her from Auden and Louis MacNeice’s book ‘Letters from Iceland’. Trying to research those Canadian stories I’ve read (and regrettably forgotten) I came across Marjorie Anderson, an academic and author whose bio explains that she is of Icelandic fisher stock from a community on Lake Winnipeg — a background which is presumably common in Manitoba and Ontario. There is something about the landscape of Ontario , the Protestantism, the Northern European culture, that creates a tone that you just don’t find in American movies. It’s evident in this film (in the landscape seen through the car windows and in the “brand spanking new” facility that is Meadowdale (or similarly horrible name for a care home)). I’m nudged to think of Cronenberg films like Crash, eXistenZ and A History of Violence (filmed in Canada). Anglophone Canadian Cinema is usually ‘weird’ — but in a good way! This film is simply very good. I must watch more Canadian movies and I’ll certainly be looking out for Sarah Polley, who sounds rather like Jodie Foster in beginning as a child star and making it to respected indy star and now acclaimed director at 27.
(The film was actually shot in Paris and Kitchener in Southern Ontario. My research turned up a literary genre which was new to me — ‘Southern Ontario Gothic’. This includes Munro and Atwood and also my favourite, Robertson Davies. It includes the elements I listed above and tends towards themes of moral hypocrisy according to Wikipedia. Isn’t the internet wonderful? But why isn’t anyone making movies based on Robertson Davies? I guess they would just be too ‘weird’.)