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Films

Away From Her

Canadian director, Sarah Polley’s Away From Her was one of my first encounters of a dementia narrative on the big screen. Polley wrote the screenplay based on Alice Munro’s beautiful short story, The Bear Came Over the Mountain and was determined from the outset to cast Julie Christie in the lead as Fiona, a smart, passionate woman who is enjoying her retirement until she’s diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. We follow Fiona and her husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent), along a familiar journey from slight confusion, to wandering, a diagnosis and memory test and finally the moment where Fiona herself decides it’s best if she moves into a residential care facility.

It’s refreshing to watch a film about dementia which focuses on a couple’s relationship. Away From Her is frank in the way it deals with issues around sex, intimacy and separation. We see Grant and Fiona making love for the final time on the day he moves her into the care facility. He’s heartbroken by the mandatory 30 day no contact policy. They haven’t been apart in more than forty years. By the time he returns to visit Fiona, she’s no longer clear about who he is and she’s developed a close attachment to another resident; a man called Aubrey (Michael Murphy), whom she’d been friendly with as a girl. Grant is now faced with a dreadful dilemma. His wife is only happy in the company of another man. Any attempts to separate them lead to deep depression on Fiona’s part. 

This is a stunningly acted and sensitive exploration of a really difficult issue which occasionally arises in dementia care. Polley gives us an insight into both perspectives, adding layers of nuance when she reveals that Grant is not entirely blameless. He’s been unfaithful to Fiona in the past. It’s also an incredibly accurate snapshot of what residential care can be like. Polley’s quick to point out the profound differences between the first floor, where the cognisant residents live, and the much-dreaded second floor where people are moved when their dementia develops. It’s a familiar and thought-provoking portrait of residential care, raising important questions about dignity, independence and quality of life. Away From Her is also a captivating story with fine performances from the central actors including the always fabulous Olympia Dukakis who’s a star turn as Aubrey’s wife.

Away From Her was directed by Sarah Polley and adapted from Alice Munro’s short story The Bear Came Over the Mountain. It was released in the UK in April 2007

Categories
Films

What They Had

Bridget (played by Hilary Swank), rushes back to her hometown of Chicago after her mother is found wandering, confused in a snowstorm. Her father Burt, (Robert Foster) and brother, Nicky, (Michael Shannon), spend Christmas arguing over whether their mother, Ruth, (Blythe Danner), should be moved into a residential care facility or retire to Florida as the couple had planned. Ruth’s dementia has progressed rapidly. She confuses her children, wanders around the house at night and at one point even makes a pass at her son, mistaking him for someone else. Burt’s reluctant to let his wife move out of the marital home. Nicky’s bluntly adamant that Ruth needs professional care. Bridget sits on the fence, constantly trying to keep the peace and, in the background, Ruth wanders in and out of conversations, talked about, but rarely talked to.

In What They Had, Elizabeth Chomko has captured a very recognisable scene from contemporary American family life. Moving a loved one into permanent residential care is always going to be an emotional experience and Chomko’s managed to include so many of the tropes familiar to this scenario. This film will really resonate with many people who’ve been through a similar experience. This is a family trying to make a difficult decision when there’s no easy solution to the problem they’re facing. For the most part What They Had honestly and realistically explores this distressing situation with a fair degree of warmth and the occasional humorous moment.

Unfortunately, Chomko seems to bottle her nerve towards the end and the final third of the movie resolves too neatly for my liking. Burt passes away quite suddenly. Ruth has a miraculous moment of cognisance where she reassures her daughter that it’s all for the best. He has died at the perfect moment. Any later and she wouldn’t have remembered who he was. Any earlier and she’d have been devastated by the loss. This scene irked me. It felt like a contrived Hallmark moment and completely unbelievable; by this point in the movie Ruth’s dementia was very advanced. With her mother’s blessing and her father no longer around to raise objection, Bridget and Ruth road trip out to California, (Thelma and Louise style in a Cadillac), where Ruth takes up residence in one of those flowery, sunny, quaint care facilities where everyone’s content and smiling. It’s as close as you’re going to get to a happy ending in a movie which centres around dementia. It didn’t work for me. The first two thirds of the film are pretty decent (with stand-out performances from Danner and Shannon), everything goes downhill from there.

What They Had was directed by Elizabeth Chomko and released in the UK in May 2019 

Categories
Films

Falling

Falling is actor, Viggo Mortensen’s debut effort as both a writer and director and it is a stunning accomplishment. Mortensen casts himself as John, a successful pilot, living in California with his husband and their adopted daughter. The movie begins, (in quite shocking fashion), with a scene on a plane. John is flying home from the Midwest with his father, Willis, (Lance Henriksen), when the older man’s dementia causes him to forget where he is and create a scene. Willis is in California to look for a smaller property as he transitions away from the large farm he’s no longer capable of looking after. However, nothing goes to plan during his visit: he manages to offend his daughter, played by Laura Dern, forgets he’s agreed to move house and is so belligerent and offensive he insults almost everyone he comes into contact with.

The film moves backwards and forwards between contemporary time -where Henriksen does an incredible job of portraying an older man who is stubborn, angry and ultimately afraid of losing his own autonomy- and the past -where Sverrir Gudnasson plays a much younger version of Willis who is not yet living with dementia but is equally stubborn, angry and intent upon wielding his authority over his family. Mortensen’s portrayal of John is notable for his forbearance and his measured approach to his father. He maintains the same patient demeanour throughout as his father rages, delivers homophobic and racist insults and humiliates him at every turn. Mortensen’s compassion is so marked it makes the moment when he finally loses his temper -railing against his father for years of abuse- one of the most powerful scenes in the film.

It’s so refreshing to come across a narrative which explores the difficult subject of how to care for someone who is not nice and never has been. This topic is rarely covered in books and movies though, in my experience, it’s reasonably common to find someone caring for a family member who has dementia despite a fractured or even abusive relationship. Mortensen handles the material with sensitivity, but he’s also unflinching when it comes to including the harrowing details. I also appreciated the way he resists stereotyping Willard. Yes, this man is a horrible, racist, homophobic, misogynist but he’s also fond of his granddaughter and displays genuine affection for her. This is a difficult watch but a necessary one. I’d thoroughly recommend checking it out. 

Falling was written and directed by Viggo Mortensen and released in the UK in February 2021