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On the one hand, Away from Her is about the relentless love Grant (Gordon Pinsent) has for his wife of more than four decades, Fiona (the luminous Julie Christie), who has early onset Alzheimer's disease. On the other, it's about the ravages the illness levels on those left behind. Fiona understands the imminence and certainty of her downward trajectory better than her husband, who remains willfully ignorant. “I think all we can aspire to in this situation is a little bit of grace,” Fiona says wisely. But it's easier said than done.
To its credit, Away from Her, which is based on the Alice Munro story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” doesn't shy away from practical matters. Early in the film, after Fiona stores a skillet in the refrigerator, the couple is seen poring over care-giving literature, including the classic The 36-Hour Day: A Family Guide to Caring for People with Alzheimer Disease, Other Dementias and Memory Loss in Later Life (Hyperion, 1989), now in its fourth edition. After Grant places Fiona in a facility—and is shut off from contact with her for a month, until she gets settled—he comes to visit only to learn she no longer recognizes him. What's worse, Fiona has forged a deep connection with Aubrey, a severely incapacitated man who lives in the facility.
The film also bravely addresses the financial cost of care. When Fiona becomes despondent after Aubrey's wife Marian (Olympia Dukakis) removes her husband from the facility, Grant visits Marian with a request. He wants her to take Aubrey back to revitalize Fiona. Marian's uncomplicated response: “If I pay, I'll lose the house. The house is the only thing we own outright.”
Early on, Fiona quietly comments that she is beginning to disappear. Away from Her elegantly and fearlessly describes the story of that vanishing—and the love that sustains the fragile presence of the people we care about.