Grant Anderson (Gordon Pinsent) has noticed his wife Fiona (Julie Christie) has been acting oddly recently. She puts the frying pan in the fridge, goes on cross country skiing treks in search of she knows not what, and is becoming increasingly forgetful. They both realise that something is wrong, and fixing labels onto the kitchen drawers to remind her where to put things isn't going to be much help for much longer. Fiona is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, and the time is fast approaching when Grant has to admit her to the local retirement home...
For her first film as director, actress Sarah Polley opted to stay behind the camera and not take a role for herself, and adapted Alice Munro's short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain", a tale of a couple in their sixties who have to cope with one partner suffering the early onset of senility. Not exactly a laugh a minute, then, but Polley, writing her own script as well, showed great sensitivity on a subject that affects so many but is so rarely tackled by the cinema.
Of course, the reputation for Canadian drama for being resolutely small scale and depressing didn't enjoy a fresh estimation, but the cast seized their chances to make this something more than the kind of story you might prefer to catch on television. After all, there's a proper film star in it in the shape of Christie, really shining in the role and perhaps that's the problem: it could not be avoided, but with her as the centre of attention, and still beautiful at the age she was, there's a danger of romanticising a tale of everyday tragedy.
And that wasn't a danger that Polley could abate on this evidence. Fiona starts the film aware of her condition, and she has to persuade the reluctant Grant that he couldn't take care of her at home on his own, so they have to place her in the local home for the elderly. Despite an air of restraint, Away from Her grows ever more sentimental and intent on jerking the tear ducts as Fiona and Grant finally grow apart after forty-four years of marriage, not because of relationship troubles, but because of disease.
The care home have a strange policy of not allowing anyone to visit the recently admitted for a whole thirty days, to let them settle in without too much distress, as if such a thing could be averted. And sure enough when the prickly Grant goes to see Fiona after that period, she doesn't recognise him (a fast acting movie version of Alzheimer's, obviously) and has latched onto one of her fellow residents (Michael Murphy), who is in a more advanced state of dementia than she is. As her spiral into incomprehension continues, Grant wonders if Fiona isn't somehow punishing him for his infidelities, and in a contrived development, he begins an affair with the wife (Olympia Dukakis) of Fiona's new friend. Away from Her is undeniably sincere, but doesn't get to the wrenching heart of senility, preferring a more glossy and indulgent sorrow. Music by Jonathan Goldsmith.
[Metrodome's Region 2 DVD has an audio commentary with Christie, deleted scenes and a trailer as extras.]