Friday, February 20, 2015

Away From Her

Away From Her (Sarah Polley, 2007) Julie Christie did her homework when it came to portraying early-stage Alzheimer's--the intense concentration, and the thousand yard stare, the polite smile to the intimate stranger. And the film does a remarkable job of putting the viewer into the "Alice-in-Wonderland" world of the Alzheimer's care-giver who must endure the pain of dealing with losing the relationship while still having to deal with the patient. The commitment is still there, even though the disease has severed the knowledge of it from patient to care-giver. Sacrifice without reward--makes you realize what being a nurse is like.*

And there's an aspect to Alzheimer's care-giving that's a bit like a lab experiment. Divorced from the ties that the disease has unpinned, one can observe the effect it has on the human being, given the prior knowledge of the sufferer. You can check off what goes, see the timeline disappear, the brain functions narrow and fluctuate, enjoy the false encouragement of "good days." For the Alzheimer's patient, it's a slow-motion float to death—at some stage they're not even aware of their condition. For the caregiver, it's a bit like watching a frog (a very dear frog) sitting in slowly heating water—you can only wait helplessly and steel yourself for the inevitable, as memory, identity, and life slips away. It's a slow death and a long good-bye.
So, in that way, Away from Her is a good primer for the best-case Alzheimer's scenario. Christie's character, Fiona Anderson, is aware of the onset, and in an act of unselfishness, rather than go into denial and paranoia makes the decision to place herself in an assisted living facility, voluntarily giving up the freedom that so many patients cling to, kicking and screaming.
Her husband of 40 years, Grant (Gordon Pinsett, he's wonderful, too) sees the relationship go away in an accelerated fashion when the facility insists on isolating the patient from family members for a required thirty days (I've never heard of such a rule, but then it takes place in Canada)
By the time of Grant's first visit--one he highly anticipates--Fiona has already separated from their relationship, and he struggles mightily to regain it, a combination of wanting to halt the progress of the disease and his own selfishness.
Where that yin and yang pulls him forms the crux of the story, and in my household it led to some pointed discussion about responsibility and relationships, but one must also look at the brutal reality of the disease and the unique way that it eviscerates normalcy.
As I've said Away From Her paints a best-case scenario that is still far from rosy, but as a toe-dip into the issues surrounding dementia and Alzheimer's, it's a pretty effective film, and actor/director/savant Sarah Polley has found a fascinating way of deriving a positive and interestingly nuanced life-lesson out of the experience. Like Orson Welles with Citizen Kane, she was all of 25 when making it.

* The author lost his Mother to Alzheimer's in 2001, if one is so churlish to look for authority. The movie has received a lot of criticism from care-givers who think the movie soft-pedals the disease, and although it does present a best-case scenario and never goes further (actually) than early-stage Alzheimer's it does show, in a perfunctory way, the severing of emotional ties and history a patient can experience and the effect it can have on the care-giver.

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