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“Away From Her”

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When you get right down to it, you — the present you, the in-the-now you reading this sentence — aren’t you. When we talk about a person, what we’re really talking about is everything they have done up to the moment we open our mouths to speak of them; their triumphs and failures, cowardices and heroics, kindnesses and cruelties.

That means, of course, that while we may be creatures of flesh and blood like any other animal, humans are — in a very real way — made of memory.

That’s what makes a disease like Alzheimer’s so tragic and frustrating. Not only do you have to watch as what makes a person who they are slowly slips over into the abyss, you have to bear witness to them slowly forgetting you. In that way, as the person with Alzheimer’s is dying, some small part of you is dying as well.

This sad, gradual descent and what it does to two couples is tracked to great effect in writer/director Sarah Polley’s superb “Away From Her,” now playing at Market Street Cinema. Full of light, love and sadness, it’s a beautifully wrought first film by a director who surely has great things to show us in the future.

Julie Christie plays Fiona, the wife of retired college professor Grant (Gordon Pinset). Married 44 years, Fiona and Grant have weathered storms in their long years together — most notably Grant’s past dalliances with female students — but they’ve since settled into a cozy kind of love, reading books to each other by firelight in their snow-covered lake cottage in the wilds of Canada.

Nothing lasts forever, though. After getting confused and lost while skiing a trail she’s covered a hundred times, Fiona is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Though Grant hopes to keep her at home with him, a few scary incidents with the stove and embarrassing examples of her ongoing forgetfulness are all it takes for the poised and elegant Fiona to insist that Grant put her in an assisted living facility so he doesn’t have to suffer through her inevitable deterioration.

After enrolling her in a facility, Grant is told that he can’t return to see Fiona for a 30-day adjustment period — the longest they have ever been apart in their whole marriage. After a month, he returns, only to find that Fiona has not only completely forgotten him, she has fallen in love with a wheelchair-bound mute named Aubrey (Michael Murphy). Though Grant visits every day, Fiona’s memories of him grow dimmer even as her attachment to Aubrey grows stronger, with a jealous Grant suspecting that somehow, at some level, she is punishing him for his past affairs.

In the midst of this, Fiona is dealt a crushing blow when Aubrey’s wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis), decides to take him out of the home. With Fiona’s grief over losing Aubrey causing her to slip deeper and deeper into the black hole of final-stage Alzheimer’s, Grant goes to see Marian. In order to save Fiona’s happiness and bring her back from the brink, Grant makes a touching final sacrifice for the wife who no longer remembers him.

While “Away From Her” isn’t quite a dinner-and-date movie, it is a great example of cinema, a luminous mix of lovely performances, a fine script, and superb direction. Though it can seem a bit overwritten at times — and something tells me that its version of Alzheimer’s disease is more for cinematic effect than clinical accuracy — it hits dead on in most of the scenes. Especially potent is the turn by Olympia Dukakis as prickly almost-widow Miriam. Though she doesn’t enter the action until well past the halfway mark, she manages to steal the show with her depth and emotion. Also a standout is Julie Christie as Fiona. Not only does she make for the most beautiful 60-something woman I’ve ever seen, she manages to sell the central conceit of “Away From Her” — that Fiona is altogether terrified by the prospect of losing her memories and through them her marriage.

Even if the idea of sitting through a film about a terrible and debilitating illness doesn’t float your boat, fans of cinema should rush to see this one. With the same kind of subtlety and simple beauty that made “Lost in Translation” such a joy, “Away From Her” is a lovely film, and might well be remembered come award season.

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