Movies about Alzheimer’s are more numerous than I realized. Back in 2007, Roger Ebert mentioned he had reviewed five such movies in the first seven years of this century. They included Iris, an elegiac biopic about the superb British writer Iris Murdoch, who died of Alzheimer’s in 1999. The most memorable scene in Iris comes when Murdoch, played by Judi Dench, blanks out during a live television interview.
A movie that came out in 2006, Away From Her, featuring Julie Christie, and directed by Sarah Polley, struck a very different tone. Unlike the 2014 movie, Still Alice, featuring Julianne Moore as a Harvard linguist who has a rare and fast-moving variant of the disease, Away From Her depicts a woman who finds the disease liberating. Not that Fiona needs encouraging. She and her husband live in rural Ontario, and when she gets lost in the woods while cross-country skiing, rather than panicking, she throws herself on her back and stares up at the snow falling from the boughs overhead, as if she were making a snow angel. Grant dutifully retrieves her.
The ironic style of this film derives from the Canadian author Alice Munro, one of Paula and my favorite writers, and the winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in literature. One of Munro’s stories was the basis of Away From Her. A key point in the movie comes when the decision is made that Fiona can no longer be trusted to live without assistance. One scene depicts her leaving a burner on, risking a fire, and soon preparations are underway to transfer her to a care facility. And, rather protesting the decision to leave her home, she embraces it. It turns out that the pricey care facility has a rather odd policy about loved ones: No one can visit until 30 days have passed. As I was watching the film, I thought, how awful it must be to be dumped in a nursing home, no matter how upscale, and not see your loved ones for an entire month.
And much can happen in that span. The surprise comes once Fiona is reunited with her husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent). Grant soon grasps that she is enjoying herself—too much, in fact, in Grant’s view. Early on, the film makes clear that Grant, a former college professor, had a long career as a philanderer. It is only in his senior years that he has been loyal to Fiona. Now, at the care facility, he quickly learns that Fiona has become romantically involved with one of the male residents. Grant himself strikes up a friendship, or at least a confidence, with a middle-age care attendant. Only fleetingly does this movie pause to let viewers see the unpleasantries which await people with Alzheimer’s in the terminal stage. This is one cheery Alzheimer’s film.