The mistake many social-issue pictures make is to try to jam the whole story in. The statistics of Alzheimer's disease in North America alone are staggering, but director Sarah Polley avoids the broader impact in "Away From Her," opting to give a mostly unsentimental look at an elderly couple torn apart by the malady.
Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent star as the Andersons, Fiona and Grant, who keep a tidy, secluded world together in a stately suburban home with an enormous backyard, where Fiona likes to cross-country ski. Sometimes she forgets how she got outside and ends up distractedly walking down the nearby highway, where Grant must not only find her, but also introduce himself. A sad image after 40 years of a rough-and-tumble partnership.
Fiona, becoming a danger to herself, feels she must enter a home. Grant doesn't want her there, but she insists, and they try to get used to it. Fiona begins to take unseemly care of her fellow patient Aubrey (Michael Murphey), erupting in a light tug of war.
Neither man, for differing reasons, understands the other's place in her life. Guilt gives Grant the worst of it. He hasn't been the perfect husband in younger years he let his female students at the local college tempt him into future bouts of remorse. Is Fiona simply playing a trick on him, he wonders aloud, as a kind of payback?
To make things worse, just when Grant is beginning to accept and even appreciate Aubrey, he's ripped away from the home, sending Fiona into a tailspin. The ironies of modern medicine are almost too much to bear. It's not lost on Grant that the expensive care bought for Fiona has become a kind of drawn-out euthanasia with a happy face. Policies designed to make things easier for patient, family and staff may have quickened the inevitable.
"Away From Her" doesn't end on a happy note. It's not a tear-jerker, but Grant has to do some very distasteful things to help his wife. The movie treats the disease maturely, so it's no spoiler to reveal that Fiona is never coming back. Grant isn't either. "Away From Her" is a rarity, unafraid to tell the truth. The world, it admits, doesn't have our best interests in mind. We have to let go of sentiment and make do. (PG-13) 110 min. S