I saw the movie Away from Her this week. Based on an Alice Munro short story, written and directed by Sarah Polley, it’s the story of a marriage and the value of assuming love — or at least that’s what I saw.
I joined a couple dozen people for a discussion of the movie and read the LA Times review of it, so I know it’s possible to see a lot of other things instead. It’s a nearly plotless character study, slow moving, sad, painful to watch at times, but saturated with symbols in the Ontario scenery, the contrasting indoor settings, the nearly unnoticed sound track, even the smallest expressions of the characters.
A still beautiful Julie Christie plays Fiona, the nurturing, wise, and childless wife of a retired professor, Grant, played by Gordon Pinsent. Fiona’s memories are slipping away due to Alzheimer’s disease, and she chooses to enter a nursing home before he’s ready for this change in their 44 year old marriage.
Fiona regrets she must lose the memories of the pleasant years together since his retirement before the ones of his earlier infidelities with his students. For a number of people in my discussion group, his early behavior made him an unlikeable character and the story one of relationships in general, not marriage.
I saw the best parts of marriage. As Fiona gradually slips away from Grant, he must come to grips with her memories, with his own static memory of her as the beautiful young woman he fell in love with, with a deepening understanding of the character of the woman he’d been married to, with the pain of losing her, and with the realization that the best thing he can give her now, as she slips away, will require great sacrifice from him. It’s painful to watch.
Grant faces some extraordinarily painful situations in his marriage, yet he gains from them deep insights. This happens when we assume love, when we look at the painful situation through the eyes of a person who loves us completely and wishes us no pain. When Grant assumes love, he grows wiser, more loving, more selfless, and more sure of her lifelong love.
I found it uplifting, although still sad because of her impending pain and death. Others saw only the pain of Grant’s and Fiona’s situations and what they interpreted as Grant’s callousness where I saw selflessness. So I invite you to see Away from Her and watch for when Grant assumes love and takes a second look at what’s happening between them. Let me know in a comment what you think.