Away from Her. 2006. Sarah Polley, director. Canada.
Away from Her owes existence to two very talented Canadian women; author Alice Munro and director Sarah Polley. Based upon a short-story penned by Munro – entitled “The Bear Came over the Mountain” – Away from Her follows an older man named Grant who is increasingly experiencing abandonment. Two factors contribute to his sense of having been marooned.
First, his wife Fiona is institutionalized following the onset of dementia. Fiona tells Grant that she is not yet “all gone … just going” and admits “beginning to disappear”. Second, as Fiona slowly loses sense of Grant as her husband, she develops feelings for a man living within her facility. As Grant presides over the degeneration of his wife, a question arises: What does it mean to love someone who no longer loves you?
One strength of Away from Her lies in its mature reflection on the complex character of love.
Many around Grant fail to grasp the significance of what is happening in his life. He speaks of how lonely it can be to be deprived of someone loved. His listener, missing the larger concern, responds “I thought you said you go visit her”. Grant, though, is articulating his sense that the “her” being visited seems less and less of the “her” whom he has loved for over the last forty years.
Grant responds to these emerging realities surrounding love and identity with grace. While seated in the recreation room of the facility in which his wife lives, he is asked by a young woman why he is seated so far from his wife. Grant responds: “She’s in love with that man she’s sitting with. I don’t like to disturb her. I just like to see her … I suppose … make sure she’s doing well, you know?”
Catholic celebrations of marriage not infrequently repeat the description of love found in the New Testament: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it … bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends”. Contexts in which love exists, however, do end. A difference exists, Grant understands, between all that “madly-in-love” love of his younger years and what he and Fiona have experienced since.
Theirs is a relationship which has not always been perfect. It is a relationship which seems, for example, to have been marked by the infidelity of Grant. Yet, in their relationship, love has manifested in their enduring respect and fidelity and support and, even more significantly, it has manifested in the forgiveness needed to not dwell on the inevitable failures of each to realize such respect and fidelity and support.
I have heard people speak of love as being the gift of oneself to another. Fine … but how that manifests seems, at times, to be “the things I can do for you”. I am not convinced that this is as full an expression of love as people sometimes suppose. Power exists in being in a position to meet the needs we suppose exist in another and I don’t know that power should be confused with love. Instead, to be vulnerable before another – to open oneself in such a way that one fears no longer being loved in return – seems something necessary to traverse before experiencing a truer sort of love.
This vulnerability is only glimpsed in Away from Her. Grant pleads with his wife not to consent to institutionalization. Fiona, however, wishes to do so. She recognizes her degeneration and, I suspect, cannot see herself continuing to lose her identity in the presence of her husband. There is something very sad about this.
Away from Her has an MPAA rating of PG-13 for “some strong language”.