Alzheimer's disease, perhaps the most feared of all mental afflictions, has a curious way of surrounding itself with a poetic atmosphere, catching unawares both its victims and those who love them. One of many surprising qualities about Sarah Polley's film, Away from Her, based on a great story by Alice Munro, is this 28-year-old first-time director's ability to see the strange poetic element in Alzheimer's -- not only see it but bring it into focus with hard, clear images, eloquently plain dialogue and poetic references that seem as natural in the film as the snowy southwestern Ontario fields.
Polley's expertly directed co-stars, Julie Christie (Fiona) and Gordon Pinsent (Grant), loved cross-country skiing over those fields as a happily married couple. That's also where first Fiona and then Grant realize the horror that has fallen upon her. A site of pleasure turns abruptly into a symbol of the emptiness that awaits Fiona, whom Christie, at age 66, plays with heart-breaking delicacy and imagination. Soon Fiona hopes only that this calamity can somehow be handled with "A little bit of grace." Even that begins to look more difficult as she realizes, "I seem to be disappearing bit by bit."
Poetry and poets appear in Polley's script not for decoration but to help us understand what Fiona is losing as she confronts the shadowy nightmare ahead. Early in the film, lines from Michael Ondaatje's sensuous poem, The Cinnamon Peeler, underscore the eroticism she and Grant have shared. After she moves into a "facility," he brings her a copy of Letters from Iceland, the 1937 book by two eminent British poets, W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, which they had always planned to read together. But she can't even remember where Iceland is, though her people came from there. Later she discovers the book in her room and can't recall how it got there.
With the past obliterated and the future at once bleak and unimaginable, Alzheimer's patients live in an eternal present. The words they speak sometimes resemble the work of the Imagist poets from early in the 20th century, notably Ezra Pound, and the thousands of poets who have followed. The minds of patients generate phrases familiar to everyone who reads even a little poetry. Reality turns into isolated fragments, ideas are only half formed, narratives are broken. As in almost anything by Pound, shards of ancient resentment are revisited -- as they are for Fiona, who starts to recall that her husband was not always faithful.
While Alzheimer's relentlessly builds up plaque on nerve terminals, slowly eroding memory, it must sometimes feel like selfbetrayal. In a medical journal from two decades ago, I found the words of a patient: "I am being split open from inside. It is a process I cannot stop because I myself am that process."
If Alzheimer's evokes earlier poetry, it also makes philosophers of us all. What is it to exist? What makes us human? When does that quality slip away? "You have to begin to lose your memory," said Luis Bunuel, the great film director, "to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all." The special cruelty of Alzheimer's is that it arrives first as a few hints (oh, well, I've always had a poor memory), then makes its presence obvious, and then moves (sometimes swiftly, sometimes slowly) toward the total destruction of personality.
When did Iris Murdoch realize she had Alzheimer's? The Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at University College London has decided that the language in her last novel, Jackson's Dilemma, published in 1995, differs so much from her earlier books that it discloses signs of Alzheimer's. After her death in 1999, that diagnosis was confirmed at autopsy. Her husband, John Bailey, whose memoirs provided the basis of the film Iris, acknowledged the change in language and recalled that she also discussed that novel with him, something she had not done before. A catastrophe was rushing toward her and she was trying to pretend she was still OK.
Alzheimer's calls up harrowing metaphors. Mavis Gallant, who also wrote a story on this subject, A State of Affairs, depicts a Polish Jew in Paris, a Holocaust survivor, whose wife has "retired to a region of the mind that must be like a twisted, hollow shell." Polley's script catches it in another way: "It is like a series of circuit breakers in a large house," Grant says, "flipping off one by one."
The special achievement of this narrative (both Munro's story, which she called The Bear Came Over the Mountain, and the script Polley has written for the film) is to convey the desperation of Alzheimer's without ever succumbing to dreariness. Munro's prose keeps the printed story alive and Polley's structure and pacing never let us stop caring for her characters. Eventually we realize that the film's themes include love, marriage and sublimated jealousy as well as Alzheimer's.
Grant has to handle an extra complication when Fiona, once parted from him, falls in love with a fellow patient, a stroke victim named Aubrey, perfectly played by Michael Murphy as looking like (Munro's words) "a powerful, discouraged, elderly horse." As Aubrey's wife, Marian, Olympia Dukakis brilliantly inserts an element of rueful pragmatism.
In their 44 years of marriage Fiona and Grant have taught themselves to control their lives as much as lives can be controlled. Alzheimer's renders this talent useless. They find themselves thrown into the hands of an assisted-living home, with a relentlessly cheerful manager (Wendy Crewson) and an honest chief nurse (Kristen Thomson) whose frankness can be even more painful than false cheer. Dealing with them only emphasizes the most infuriating of the feelings flooding Grant's life: total helplessness.
Polley makes that point clear by playing, as the credits roll, the emphatic K.D. Lang version of Neil Young's imagery-rich anthem, Helpless, about a town in northern Ontario, a place of "dream comfort memory despair," where "We were helpless, helpless." Young was recalling his youth when he wrote it, but his words fit this story of people in their sixties learning what it is to have essential elements of existence withdrawn -- a story that a spectacularly talented 28-year-old has now made her own.