I love TIFF’s Books on Film series (seeing Mohsin Hamad speak about The Reluctant Fundamentalist is still a favourite film memory), and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see Sarah Polley at TIFF Bell Lightbox on March 27th being interviewed about her film Away from Her, based on Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” I’ve long known Sarah Polley’s name as a talented Canadian filmmaker, and Alice Munro is, of course, Alice Munro. As Eleanor Wachtel said at the TIFF event, Alice Munro has been called “the Canadian Chekhov,” but with all her accolades, perhaps it’s Chekhov who should be known as “the Russian Alice Munro.”
I haven’t read “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” (read it here, in The New Yorker), so I couldn’t say how the movie compared to the story. It was also my first time seeing Away from Her, though I had known of it previously, and I was looking forward to seeing its portrayal of an elderly couple dealing with Alzheimer’s in the family.
What an incredibly moving and beautiful film Away from Her is! The movie garnered 94% on Rotten Tomatoes, and it’s well-deserved. The title comes from something Grant (Gordon Pinsent) tells a nurse at his wife Fiona’s (Julie Christie) long-term care facility, about how he and his wife have never spent such a long period of time apart before in all their 40+ years of marriage.
There is just so much I love about this movie. I love the relationship between Grant and Fiona, how comfortable they are with each other, how much Fiona loves to tease Grant. I also love how their relationship isn’t perfect, how Grant has clearly done something in the past that Fiona has decided to live with, but hasn’t quite fully forgiven. On the car ride to the facility, Fiona muses that there are memories you’d rather forget, but can’t. The look of wistfulness on Julie Christie’s face, and the flash of guilt on Gordon Pinsent’s, is just a masterclass in acting.
I love how it’s Fiona who decides she needs to check herself into the facility, and how it’s Grant who struggles with the policy of no visits for the first 30 days. Often, when characters have dementia, it’s their family members making the tough decisions, and I love that this movie places the agency firmly in Fiona’s hands. The scene in Fiona’s room at the facility before Grant leaves her moved me to tears, and is just one of the most beautiful moments in film.
I also love that, despite the depth of Grant and Fiona’s love for each other, their relationship doesn’t remain perfect even after Fiona checks into the facility. When Grant finally visits after a month, he finds that she’s formed a close friendship with another resident, Aubrey. “He doesn’t confuse me,” Fiona says, and more than that, he needs her, which I think is what she needs. Despite this, Grant continues to visit every day, always with flowers or a book or some other treat, and even when his visits amount to nothing more than sitting on the common room sofa while Fiona and Aubrey play bridge, he continues to visit daily. We also meet Aubrey’s wife Marian (Olympia Dukakis), whom Grant visits because he wants a favour. Her prickly personality conceals an intense loneliness, and Dukakis plays the tension between those perfectly.
Even the minor characters are vivid. The nurse who helps Grant adjust to his wife’s new life has her own complex backstory that makes me curious to learn more about her life. There’s a grandmother/granddaughter pair who are often in the common room during Grant’s visits, and who caught my eye because they use sign language and I don’t often see Deaf characters in movies. There’s a scene where the grandmother doesn’t seem to recognize the granddaughter anymore — the granddaughter’s signing is becoming increasingly frantic, and the grandmother shrinks back and keeps looking away. The nurse tells Grant, “She’s the only one in her family who even bothered to learn to sign,” and I’m not sure if it’s the grandmother or the granddaughter who is Deaf, but it’s just a heartbreaking scene.
I can go on and on about all the things I love about the movie, but that will end up just being a play-by-play of each scene as it’s just amazing through and through. After the movie, Eleanor Wachtel interviewed Sarah Polley, who wrote the screenplay and directed the movie, and it was fascinating to gain additional insight into the way the story was adapted for the screen.
Polley is a fan of Alice Munro’s writing, and her love for the source material shows. Wachtel actually had notes about which lines of dialogue were from Alice Munro’s original and which were written by Polley, but I love that I couldn’t tell the difference while watching. Polley’s own experiences came into the making of the film, both the experiences in her own life and the experience of reading the story itself. “There’s a space between the story and my experience of it, and I wanted to make that tangible,” she said.
Polley drew from her experience of looking for retirement homes with her grandmother, and that the characterizations of the hard-nosed facility administrator and the sympathetic nurse were based on people she met. She also said she has more experience now with memory loss — the final scene in the movie actually happened to her in real life after the movie was made, and because of her experience, she now has a clearer idea of how the characters’ stories will continue past that moment.
When asked about the bright colour palette for the film, which seems in contrast to the darker themes, Polley said she wanted to capture some of the feeling of being a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s: “I want it to be so bright you sometimes want to squint and close your eyes. I wanted it to feel somewhat alarming to see that light coming right at you.”
I was also fascinated by the discussion around what Polley chose to keep and to change from the original story. For example, the original story is told from Grant’s perspective, so Polley had to change some of his internal monologue into a dialogue between characters. Also in the story, Grant is able to delude himself into thinking that Fiona doesn’t know about his infidelity, whereas for film, because we see Fiona’s perspective as well, it becomes clear that she is aware of what happened. Aubrey being a visual artist adds an extra layer to his character and was an addition to the film; being non-verbal, he expresses his feelings for Fiona through his sketches of her. Interesting note is that Aubrey being an artist wasn’t Polley’s idea, but rather that of someone from Telefilm Canada, who provided part of the funding for the movie.
About her career in general, Polley remembers her second grade teacher, who let her write all week rather than do math or other subjects, on the condition that she read her stories out loud at the end of the week. She remembers overhearing the teacher tell an older student about her, “That one’s gonna be a writer.” I wonder if she’s still in touch with this teacher, and if not, I hope that the teacher somehow knows how much they’ve made an impact on this student’s life.
Finally, for anyone interested in music, Polley’s soundtrack while writing Away from Her was k.d. lang’s Hymns of the 49th Parallel.
Next on Books on Film
On April 17, author and journalist David Lipsky reflects on the 1996 final interviews with eminent American writer David Foster Wallace, the evolutionary literary adaptation Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, and 2015 feature film The End of the Tour.
Books on Film 2017 Full Schedule
Thanks to TIFF for a ticket to this event in exchange for an honest review.