April 13, 2008

Away from her

Films about the process of aging, about death itself touch us all very closely. Away from her is a film about the most terrifying proces of them all- the slow loss of the mind that accompanies Alzheimers and the slow loss of relationships. The thing about us all is that we have to as one character says you just have to be happy, to accept what comes your way, because life is uncontrollable- and nothing is stable, nothing lasts forever and nothing endures. We live a life which is unstable and forever changing, forever evolving. Our passions, our loves and hates are all mutable and change slowly with time, they alter and they cannot be forced into a single prism, they cannot be stablised. Learning to live is learning to cope with change- change that can be dramatic and terrible but still needs to be survived- still needs to be enjoyed- to use that great theatre phrase the show must go on.

Away from her is a film that really symbolises that process. For forty four years Fiona and Grant have been married- she is now sixty two and begins to feel the affects of alzheimers disease, her brain is breaking down. Over the course of this slow film, exactly what you know will happen happens. Slowly she loses connection with the outside world, she puts the frying pan in the fridge, she forgets where she lives, she forgets who her husband is, she falls in love with a fellow patient, she slowly loses her sense of reality. A fog descends upon her mind. A blankness replaces the ever present life that once was there, curiosity becomes a conviction that the world outside the four walls of the home doesn't matter. For her husband that process is unbelievably painful: she even forgets that he brought the gifts, he brought for her, she thinks they were left around in the home. She even forgets the man who she was in love with in the home. In a symbolic moment, a girl who used to communicate with her family through her mother, the only person who could understand sign language, is forgotten by her mother- her mother is angry at the interference from this stranger signalling to her in her life, her daughter is distraught.

But he lives with the knowledge that everything has died, and he has to live with that knowledge and care for his wife at the same time. Caring for her, going in every day to the home, he doesn't drive away, he stays, he stays and watches and waits for any sign that she might recover. He waits and is dependable when all else seems lost. But he too evolves. You cannot live as a perpetual nurse, he has to learn how to cope, he has to learn how to enjoy life. He has to go to a dance for example with the wife of the man who his wife is in love with. He has to decide to be happy. He has to wake his soul- to learn how to enjoy the precious moments that are left- to enjoy the few moments of lucidity that his wife has. Its a terrifying glimpse into what the human soul has to do: we all face in a way the same dilemma, life is not so much about avoiding tragedy, its about living with tragedy and living with hope. When Pandora's box opened, that was the Gods' last gift to human kind and as Away from her demonstrates even when the person you most love is going mad, that hope can still be a precious commodity. Hope and endurance.

Carrying off a film like this is hard. It softens some of the worst aspects of Alzheimers- many sufferers berate those who come to see them. The worst thing is to see someone who knows that they are losing their mind, losing it and knowing that that is happening. Knowing that they will wake up tommorrow and cease to be Fred, Stan or Dorothy. Imagine if you can't remember the word for chair, that's not a nice feeling. It does illustrate however the way that homes for the old and sick are often surreal worlds: looking at the dining hall in this film brought back memories for me of seeing my grandmother inside such a place. That same slightly stuffy atmosphere with eighty year olds watching TV and not really understanding it. The performances here are all very good- the two leads, Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent do fantastically well at conveying the process that they are involved with. Also worthy of comment is Kristen Thomas who plays the main nurse in the film, she portrays the mixture of sensitivity and toughness that I came across whenever I met the nurses in the homes. Very kind, very sensible and yet also very strong people who are amazingly gentle to their patients and yet strong enough to bear with the quite incredible strain of looking after people who are so ill.

This is a very good film and very much worth watching, it is very sad of course, and it neglects some of the nastier aspects of the condition but it still captures the essential sadness of it. That slipping out of your mind is a tragedy for you, and also for those left behind. They see every day a body out of which the person that they knew is going, the body is still alive, it moves, speaks, but a different personality inhabits it- a personality which lacks the memories, reference points and often emotions that it had before. Those left behind have to cope with that, those going through it have to cope with the slow death of their own personality and its replacement by something else. What could be worse afterall than knowing that you are losing your mind?


Semaj Mahgih said...

Caring for her, going in every day to the home, he doesn't drive away, he stays, he stays and watches and waits for any sign that she might recover. He waits and is dependable when all else seems lost.

Story of my mother but she remained largely at home till the end.

Gracchi said...

Its such a sad position to be in- I do hope that your mother and father didn't suffer too much James for too long.