Away From Her, the new film from Sarah Polley, gives us Fiona (Julie Christie) and Grant (Gordon Pinsent), a couple dealing with the progression of Fiona’s Alzheimer’s. It deals with love and memory, of course, and we experience memory in at least three ways. In the way that stories do, things that happen later in the narrative remind us of events from earlier on. Grant drives past a National Parks sign and waits (as the audience does) to see if Fiona recalls something she said, right at that location, earlier in the film.
Secondly, characters recall events that have happened before the narrative. An earlier time that Grant and Fiona drive past the sign, she says, “Remember when . . .”. The effect is maybe as strong for us as it is for Grant. Maybe she’s not disappearing, after all. But we know she is. This is a memory in relief against the decline that’s much broader.
And of course, there is the flashback. Polley has talked about resisting setting up a sentimental happy past against which the current story can lie. Instead, what she’s done here is provide us with brief flashbacks, not of events, but of moments. The young Fiona, light and happy against a sunlit sea. The image is silent, or played under conversation from the present. It’s fuzzy but quite vivid. She looks at the camera and says something. What is it? “What are you thinking?” Maybe. It’s a flashback that, by showing us the young Fiona, tells us of the long line of decades that they have had together.
There are other flashbacks. Those that suggest events from the past that have an emotional resonance now for both characters. Another time, Grant stands in front of a mirror. Cut to a flashback of a younger him and Fiona standing in front of a mirror together. It’s a flashback that doesn’t tell us anything new (yes, they were a young couple together), but it makes the change imposed on the present a little starker.
There’s a slight jolt in looking at flashbacks of younger versions of characters. It’s rare that the actors are the same, so there’s a moment of recognition (is that meant to be her? yes) and a moment of acceptance (is that her? yes). Sometime soon it’s going to be possible for postproduction to do this convincingly.