Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue May 22, 2007 9:51 am 
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A somewhat sweetened hereafter

Here is another film about family life based on a work of short fiction, this time Alice Munro's December 1999 New Yorker story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," which looks at the disruption of a long marriage caused when Fiona, a woman in Canada whose mother was Icelandic, is afflicted with Alzheimer's. Richard Eyre's 2001 Iris grew out of John Bayley's book about his remarkable wife, the novelist Iris Murdoch, and the way when she got Alzheimer's he cared for her to the very end. Munro's short story instead deals with a lady who insists on going into an institution and it focuses on how her husband struggles to cope when that happens. It's a place called Meadowlake, where the rule is family members can't visit new residents for the first thirty days. When Grant, the husband (Gordon Pinsent), finally gets to see her again, his wife Fiona (Julie Christie) has latched onto somebody else, a man called Aubrey (Michael Murphy). Grant patiently makes daily visits to Meadowlake and tries to gain Fiona's attention, but remains painfully excluded not just by her fading mind but by her new loyalty to another person.

Brain-damaged but not through Alzheimer's, Aubrey, it turns out, is only at Meadowlake temporarily, and when his wife comes to retrieve him Fiona has become depressed and taken to her bed. In Munro's story, Grant is present when Aubrey leaves, a moment rather blurred in Away from Her. The film presents sequences of events that are straightforward in the story in such overlapping fashion that for a while viewers may feel they too are getting Alzheimer's. While extremely faithful to Munro's text in other ways, Polley's screenplay fiddles with its time-scheme unnecessarily.

What's clear about Grant in both versions is, he's fighting to hold onto his wife. He never wanted her to go away in the first place. Because memory loss is partial and sporadic in early-stage Alzheimer's he's the more able to think -- at least for a while -- that her tricky recall is only a game she's playing. When the departure of Aubrey leads to a dramatic decline in Fiona and she may be transferred to the second floor, the place reserved for residents who've completely lost it, Grant finds out where Aubrey's wife lives and goes to meet Marian (Olympia Dukakis). He wants to persuade her to let Aubrey revisit Meadowlake, hoping that will revive Fiona. Marian refuses. She thinks he's a "jerk." (In the story it's he who only suspects she'll think that; but in the movie, more literal in its use of some details, she says it aloud to herself the minute he's out the door.)

Polley has enlarged the bare-bones picture of the institution in Munro's story, expanding the character of the nurse Kristy (Kristen Thomson), Grant's only ally at Meadowlake, and introducing a little comedy in the character of a former sports announcer who perfectly narrates a TV hockey game and even booms out descriptions of the dining room menu. As a picture of the experience of turning over a loved one to such a place, however, both story and film could use more practical details. The film especially needs more, to counteract its tendency to overplay its emotional shallows.

The fact that Grant, a retired professor, was a philanderer who had affairs with his female students is something we learn in the film through dialogue when he's driving Fiona to Meadowlake. And now a surprise comes up which may bring his skills as a seducer into play: Marian calls him and asks him out on a sort of date. This gives Grant a wedge. Later he brings Aubrey to visit Fiona, but we never see that. We just see her greet Grant again, up out of her bed and somewhat revived, but still diminished. The final moment is a sweet one in Munro's story as in the film -- where Fiona has taken on a vague, Ophelia-like manner, confused but a touching blend of the amorous and the courtly.

Sarah Polley, previously well known as an actress (Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter, eXistenZ) who herself wrote this adaptation as well as directed, has followed Munro's story closely, and yet the effect is very different. The story is more cool and acerbic. This comes through the realism with which Grant's past infidelities are viewed; through Marian's hardheaded and practical view of life; and through the way the story progresses as a series of rapid steps. The movie, reducing some information about the principals but expanding background details, dwells more on each scene. It's full of emotional moments the story doesn't dwell upon.

Gordon Pinsent is a Canadian like Munro and Polley -- and Atom Agoyan, something of a mentor for Polley, who produced. Pinsent's Grant fits Munro's conception beautifully: he's suffering, but as a Meadowlake woman says in the movie, he's a "charmer," and he even looks like someone who'd have taught Norse mythology and Anglo-Saxon, as the story and film specify. Olympia Dukakis as Marian is a good approximation, but a little one-note, compared to Alice Munro's tough, wily character. In the story, Fiona is one of those "few who've kept their beauty whole, though shadowy," and that's where Julie Christie is an inspired choice. But despite Christie's fine performance, it's part of the general sweetening and emotional in-dwelling of the film versus Munro's story. "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" achieves a balance of practical facts and painful feelings that gets tilted a little too far into sentiment and gloom in the film with a corresponding loss of pungency. Nonetheless Away from Her is a precocious directorial debut for Sarah Polley, who's only 28.

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