Tuesday, April 29, 2014


The other day a friend sent me an article about Glenn Campbell, the seventy-eight-year-old Grammy-winning country artist who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2011. The piece noted that Campbell had been admitted to an Alzheimer’s care facility earlier in the week.  

As it happened, I had just finished revisiting Away From Her, a 2009 film that dealt with the disease. I generally shy away from movies laced with inevitable sadness, but ever since I saw Dr. Zhivago I’ve been a Julie Christie fan, and Christie’s characterFiona Andersson was at the very heart of the story.

I suppose the thing that impressed me the most about this film was the way that everyone involved treated the material, delivering a stunningly real, quietly moving portrait of a couple facing the ups and ultimate downs of this heart-wrenching disease.   

I think I may be beginning to disappear.

The film follows Fiona and Grant―her college professor husband (Gordon Pinsent), over a three-year period, as they deal with the slow but steady progression of Fiona’s illness. Along the way we learn that their marriage was nearly derailed some twenty-years before when Grant strayed into the arms of one of his students. Saved by a move across country to a rustic lakeside retreat, they have, over the years, fallen into an easy rhythm that belies any hint of residual anger on Fiona’s part.

Writer/director Sarah Pollen moves back and forth between the past and present, a device that could easily be confusing, but in her capable hands, allows us to follow along, often learning the whys and wherefores in flashbacks and voiceovers.  

Most of the action in the first half of the film takes place in the  Andersson’s cozy southwest Ontario kitchen, where, on a January night in 2003, we watch as Grant finishes washing and drying the dishes, handing them off to Fiona, who puts them away as she has done thousands of times before.  It is only when she places a frying pan in the freezer that we realize that something is amiss. 

Over the next year we witness small but steady hints of things to come. A dinner with friends begins well, but ends poorly, when Fiona struggles with words that rolled off her tongue only months before.

Would anyone like some more...some more...ween? (She pauses, and tries again) Wane?

By the time summer settles in there have been some accommodations. Post-it notes are everywhere, stuck to kitchen cabinet cabinets and drawers (“cutlery, dishtowels, knives”) in ready anticipation. It is a step Grant finds counterproductive. It is, for him, too much, too soon.

If I look away, I forget what yellow looks like.

By November Fiona is getting lost along familiar trails and byways, and realizes that―as she says―she is slowly disappearing. But while she appears to accept her fate, reading up on the subject and sorting through brochures filled with various long-term care options, Grant isn’t having any of it. And so there is some irony in the fact it is Fiona who, two years after the frying pan episode, finds the words her husband does not want to hear.

We are at that stage, Grant.  We are at that stage.

Later, as Grant uneasily prepares to check-out a nearby long-term facility called Meadowlake, Fiona does her best to set his mind at ease. “You’re not making this decision alone,” she tells him with a calm resolve. “I’ve already made up my mind.”

As such homes go, Meadowlake is one of the best: a high-end, brand-new campus with large, tastefully appointed private rooms, a variety of dining and game room areas, and a scenic view. If you have to be institutionalized, this is about as good as it gets.  

But, after a tour of the building's first floor accommodations, reality sets in when the home’s supervisor takes Grant to the extended care wing: a lock-down area where end-stage patients listlessly live out their days. The thought of Fiona living among― let alone being one of these vacant-eyed, residents is more than he can bare.

The following morning he expresses his concerns to Fiona, who is put off by the fact that her husband didn’t finalize plans for her admission while he was there. “I don’t think I like the place,” says he, in a last ditch effort to stave off the inevitable.

I don’t think we should be looking for something we like here Grant” she replies, adding, “I don’t think we’ll ever find that. I think all we can aspire to in this situation is a little bit of grace.”  

As they make their way from Meadowlake’s parking lot to the main building, we realize that though Fiona has lost much of her memory and sense of time, some things best forgotten, remain clearly sketched in her mind.       

There are things that I wish would go away but won’t. Things we don’t talk about.

She is, of course, referring to Grant’s infidelity, and a conversation that should have taken place years before is now reduced to the time it takes to walk from their car to the Admission’s office. Later, Grant will wonder if his wife has feigned her memory loss in order to punish him for past sins. 

Such thoughts, rational or not, are explored throughout the film, as are a whole raft of concerns that go into making some of life’s toughest decisions. And while it is clearly Grant and Fiona’s story, the lives of other residents and caregivers mix and mingle with theirs, creating a rich tapestry of circumstances and emotions. For as Grant explains after being found in an uncomfortable situation, “It’s complicated.”  

How he and those around him react to a series of unexpected, sometimes hopeful, often unsettling twists and turns makes for a thought-provoking film.

They get these attachments.

Attachments? What do you mean, "attachments?" Well, rather than going into one of the novie's major plot lines, I will refer you to an article in the November 13, 2007 edition of USA Today, where it was reported that then newly-retired United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wasaccording to her oldest sondealing with a similar situation, one that is, apparently, more common than you might think.

Adapted from The Bear Came Over the Mountain (a short story by Alice Monro), Sarah Polley‘s screenplay received an Oscar nomination, as did Christie for her beautifully understated performance. But nominations aside,  Pinsent also brought a real humanity to his role, while Olympia Dukakis added a much-needed counterpoint, as the wife of another Meadowlake resident.

While I can’t say that you’ll enjoy this film, or find it entertaining, I can say that you will appreciate the way it thoughtfully explores not only the hearts and minds of those who leave, but those who are left behind.  

And for those who are dealing with or have dealt with such things, there is some comfort in seeing things through Fiona’s eyes. “Sometimes there’s something delicious in oblivion” she says, offering a bit of solace and peace.