Away From Her, a film about the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s on a several decades-long marriage was more than ably adapted and directed by a young woman not yet thirty—Sarah Polley. Best known for her acting, Polley offers one of the better debuts for a North American writer/director in some time. The film, which tracks the struggles that Fiona and Grant endure as she succumbs to the disease, has a quiet and unassuming way about it. Rather than big emotional breakdowns, we get silence and contemplation, a choice that serves to open the film and allow the audience to connect with it in more personal ways. One scene in particular was especially striking in this regard.
In an early scene, Fiona moves across the kitchen to place a skillet in the freezer, obviously unaware that she is making a mistake. Grant stands at the sink, watching his wife intently, and nearly expressionless. Fiona then completes her task, makes a brief comment to her husband, and leaves the kitchen. Polley shoots the entire sequence from the far end of the kitchen in a single shot, with both actors in medium close-up. The director’s choice here helps to underline the import of the scene in at least two ways.
First, because the whole of the kitchen is covered in the frame, the changing spatial relationship between the actors is highlighted. Thus, as Fiona moves toward the freezer, she moves away from Grant, and the distance between them becomes more than apparent. However, when she returns to Grant and continues speaking to him as if nothing had happened, a kind of closeness returns—except now, because of this new factor in their relationship, it is always mitigated by that skillet in the freezer. And of course, the ice box still sits in the foreground of the shot, not allowing us to forget about its presence.
Second, because Polley uses a single shot for this scene, it allows the silence of Grant to bring extra weight to the exchange. His silence helps to highlight the previous spatial changes, forcing the viewer to pay attention to something other than words. In addition, it also helps us to focus on the actors, especially the character of Grant. And the mix of fear, confusion, and mystery written on his face help to create a compelling moment that likely would have been lost had someone attempted to script lines for him. Though this is our first experience of Fiona’s forgetfulness, we already understand implicitly the struggle that is beginning for the couple. In this case, the wise choice of silence allows the form of the film to communicate when there is no need for words. That Polley utilizes such techniques has me looking forward with anticipation to her next directorial effort.