Clinging to Cognizance in a Home for the Fading

    Considering the fact that senior citizens are quantitatively on the verge of surpassing North America’s youthful population – providing a potential prime target for elderly entertainment ventures and commercial advertising beyond that glorious “”I’m having a heart attack”” spot – they are somewhat surprisingly absent from popular visual culture. It could be specific to the times: The average lifestyle of young people has changed drastically over the past century, and the modern whirlwind of up-to-the-second public information, imagery and dialogue may not appeal to a generation reared on a much more private life. Or there’s the possibility that our instincts are just trying to protect us from sweaty after-sex movie scenes between senile saggies. Whatever the reason, aside from some community service hours at the old folks’ home and in scoffing reference to Florida or Social Security, there are few occasions that most of us interact with (or even remember to recognize) that distant – but ever-looming – half of life, a portion rapidly growing with every next medical advance.

    Courtesy of The Weinstein Company
    Fiona (Julie Christie) is forced to move to the Meadowdale nursing home when her Alzheimer’s takes full hold.

    One particular terror from which the new age of health care cannot protect us is the deteriorating crumble of Alzheimer’s disease – a reality not so easily sequestered to gated communities, instead burdening everyone involved with a creepy sense of fading legacy. Good thing we have rare stunner Julie Christie, gracefully ripened since “”Doctor Zhivago”” babe-dom to take some of the weight off Gena Rowlands’ typecast shoulders, picking up right where “”The Notebook”” left off. But unlike Rowlands, Christie has no sideshow of young star power to make the journey through “”Away From Her”” any less labored, and she lends a fittingly sick tedium to her role as decaying beauty Fiona, slowly losing the one precious thing that makes us uniquely human: our memory. Through those classical lips – stretched with a new waning elasticity across that regal row of pearly whites – and along the graying swish of an old-glamour hairdo, Christie embodies the retro authenticity we young’uns try so hard to recover. Watching her blank eyes sink back into a white, sterilized pillow – rid of the sparks that flicker there at the movie’s start – is almost like seeing the public ancestry lose its memories. If “”Away”” is worth our time, it could be only for the quiet, gray image of Christie pausing in the snow, mid-cross country ski, in which her every dark facial feature seems to say – to quote local writer, the late Kathy Acker – “”I saw something important I can’t remember.””

    Grant (Gordon Pinsent, “”The Good Shepherd””), Fiona’s waddling, wheezy old teddy bear of a life partner (but not without a couple blips of student-teacher adultery, barely alluded to by a choppy handful of grainy flashbacks), is something of a charmer himself – to which the other grannies at Meadowdale immediately take notice. So we’re not talking the blandest old couple in the bush, especially once a twisted sort of love quadrilateral begins to form between another couple they meet at the home. But after the first half, which unfolds in a two-steps-forward, one-step-back puzzle-piece time, the dismal drear that consumes a place where the residents have come to die begins to slow the stir of any intrigue.

    What’s more surprising than an indie success taking place almost wholly in an old folks’ home is that a young person decided to make it – the same young person, in fact, who starred as the cheesy young mother in “”My Life Without Me”” and the hot chick in “”Dawn of the Dead.”” As awkward as writer/director Sarah Polley’s brush strokes are – through the lonely dining hall, bleak TV room (blaring with out-of-place Iraq announcements, to which Christie responds, “”Don’t they remember Vietnam?””) and monotonous rounds of bridge – this is a story that, now more than ever, may be more relevant than we’d care to admit.

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