It takes courage to live a life. No matter how carefully we plan, how wisely we choose, stuff happens, and we must change. Fortunately, most of life’s crises are the expected, often universal, stages of development, ones that call upon us to adapt and to grow. We make choices: each works well some of the time and brings us some of what we want; at other times, each feels like a terrible mistake, and we wish we could collect our $200 and return to GO.
Sometimes there are bolts out of the blue—unexpected crises, like 9/11. We try to protect ourselves by giving in to terrorists or sacrificing our freedoms to the government, as both gain their power by keeping us in a terrorized state. It’s the terror—not the actual danger—that enslaves us.
One of the most courageous voices to be heard in this state of near universal panic that’s emerged in recent years is the angrily unterrorized voice of Mariane Pearl, the richly multicultural (Cuban, French, Buddhist, black, white, etc.) journalist for National Public Radio and other media. Mariane and her Jewish-Iraqi-American husband, Danny Pearl, most notably of the Wall Street Journal, chose to explore, understand, explain, and change the world. They were unafraid, even in Pakistan, shortly after 9/11. They were determined to be unafraid of a world to which they felt so richly connected, particularly as they were awaiting the birth of their first child, Adam.
Soon after 9/11, solo terrorist Richard Reid tried to down a plane by lighting a shoe bomb, and Danny Pearl decided to explore Reid’s terrorist connections in Karachi. He made contact with people claiming to be close to Al Qaeda and to convicted terrorism planner Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a virulently anti-Semitic Brit of Pakistani descent. Soon Danny set out across the cacophonous frenzy of this disorganized, grotesquely overcrowded city, heading to a secret meeting from which he never returned.
Rather than give in to fear or panic, Mariane contacted the Pakistani and American authorities, who set up a war room in their Karachi house and began the tense, chaotic process of mining computers, identifying cab drivers, and torturing suspects in an effort to save Danny. For weeks, she barely slept or ate, despite her pregnancy. In her anger and determination, she dared not show weakness.
Soon the National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty surfaced and, for the next five weeks, made ridiculous demands on the world in its efforts to keep everyone in the West terrorized. Finally, the videotape of Danny’s beheading arrived with a transcript from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the number-three man under Osama Bin Laden, saying, “I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi, Pakistan.” The videotape shows him holding up Danny’s detached head by the hair. In time, the terrorists were caught and imprisoned, and we got a fuller story of how inextinguishable Danny was in captivity as he fought with his captors, insulted them, and tried repeatedly to escape. Mariane, now with Adam, moved to France and wrote her adoring, sentimental memoir about Danny’s life and death, A Mighty Heart. In it, she focused primarily on their great love for each other and for the human race.
Now, Michael Winterbottom has filmed the movie loosely from her book, with sweet-faced Danny look-alike Dan Futterman and Angelina Jolie, in a black curly wig and caramel-colored makeup, as Mariane. What Mariane wanted to emphasize in the book was Danny’s fearless optimism and his great love. She saw that nothing was too foreign for him or beyond the cloak of his compassion. What she wanted us to know about herself wasn’t just her obvious love, but her courage, her own “mighty heart,” which is determined not to be terrorized. She will not be afraid. But what the movie audience can’t overlook is that Danny, whatever precautions he took, and however deeply he understood the people around him, was a bit reckless, assuming that the rest of the human race was more humane than it is.
The film, done in jumpy, documentary style in one of the world’s most jumbled hellholes, keeps us rattled by interruptions, mostly of flashbacks to Danny’s being sweet and gentle to Mariane. Angelina Jolie is, of course, drop-dead gorgeous and unstoppably attention-getting. Hers isn’t a complex performance, but is a riveting one, as we wonder how much enforced helplessness a body can stand. We watch enthralled as she finally learns of her husband’s assassination. She stops breathing, refuses to look at the tape, rushes out of the building, and then drops to her knees and howls until she can talk and resume the business at hand. We’re forced to be with her as she goes through this unimaginably wrenching, almost but not quite unpredictable horror. And, like Danny, we must try to understand it, because the closer we get to understanding how the world works and the people in it think, the less mysteriously dangerous it feels.
Most of us are luckier than Danny Pearl and get to experience many crises, survive them, learn from them, and grow wise and then old. That and the inevitability of death are the most predictable expectations of life.
Julie Christie, the Angelina Jolie of the ’60s and ’70s, is now 66. Age hasn’t lessened or withered her—the piercing blue eyes, the petulant lower lip, and the unbending lean body endure, as does the grace. In her latest film, Away from Her, she has Alzheimer’s—one of life’s developmental crises that await some of us, forcing decisions and adjustments when it comes. When danger lurks inside, rather than out there in the bushes or in the crowd, it no longer feels escapable or avoidable. Those whom it strikes inevitably feel more helpless. The enemy isn’t the dangerous world: it’s the terror over what comes from within.
In this film, Christie is the childless wife of a retired English professor. At the start of the story, she and her husband of 40 years (rock-solid Canadian television actor Gordon Pinsent) are cleaning up the kitchen. She offhandedly puts the frying pan in the freezer and he, silently, takes it out and puts it in the pot drawer. Despite her husband’s hovering gallantry, she knows what’s happening to her. As the incidents get more obvious and more dangerous, she notes, “I seem to be disappearing bit by bit.” It isn’t a complaint, but a curious observation. She watches her own deterioration with fascination and often amusement.
Pinsent does what he does—gazes upon her adoringly, as we all did for decades long ago—without letting the ravages of time turn him away. Eventually Christie determines that it’s time to go to the nursing home, and she settles in, without self-pity, but rather with courage and that element of curiosity about what her brain is going to do to her next.
The adoring Pinsent’s steadfastness is fueled in part by the appreciation he feels for the fact that this magnificent woman would let him love her, and in part by the guilt over some long-past and forgiven, but not completely forgotten, betrayal. He can hardly bear to let her go and is quite lost without her. She’s far more self-reliant, even in her deteriorating state. They’ve long been accustomed to being the only ones in each other’s life, but now she’s surrounded by other people.
Christie gradually forgets who her husband is and attaches herself to a mute, wheelchair-bound artist (Michael Murphy of An Unmarried Woman). Pinsent’s jealousy turns to panic, and he tries to win her back—which bewilders her. She doesn’t know this persistent man, and she finds it intrusive and forward of him to be bringing her flowers. Murphy’s pragmatic wife, Olympia Dukakis of Moonstruck, accepts the situation, though, and haltingly seduces Pinsent, as all four settle humbly into the inevitability of this phase of the human condition, which even in decline is far from joyless or hopeless.
Away from Her is a memorable love story, far deeper than the stories of the hot, young, suicidal love of Christie’s youth, like the unforgettable films Doctor Zhivago, Far from the Madding Crowd, Don’t Look Now, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and Darling. Yet she remains irresistible. Pinsent’s love for the person with whom he’s shared his life (despite the moments of distraction years earlier) is manly, in a way that befits the shaggy Canadian landscape in which they’ve lived alone by a lake. All that’s gone before, as Pinsent shows us, is superficial compared with what comes later, when we need each other so much more—when we can finish each other’s stories and histories and anticipate each other’s needs.
The story behind Away from Her, “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” is by Alice Munro, who writes about grown-ups in love who are past the point of idealization and well into a steady state of appreciation of the love they get and the love they give. Surprisingly, the film is adapted and directed by Canadian actress Sarah Polley, who’s just in her twenties. How does she know that this is the course of true love? We humans can’t really live joyfully and painlessly ever after, but we can live lovingly and appreciatively ever after.
Away from Her is an important, I might say necessary, little movie for grown-ups, The other immortal movie about Alzheimer’s is Iris, with Judi Dench playing the fading Iris Murdoch, while her husband, Jim Broadbent, tries to cope with the dimming of one of the most brilliant minds of 20th-century English literature. As she nuzzles up to him, whom she no longer really recognizes, he impatiently pushes her away and calls her a stupid cow. To be loved so hungrily is oppressive enough, but to be forgotten is the end of life. When your loved one no longer knows you, who then are you? Do you still exist if the memory of what you did for love is no longer alive anywhere? We are immortal only so long as we’re remembered.
A third new film about crises and choices is Evening, a truncated adaptation of Susan Minot’s overpopulated novel from 1998 that focuses on the regrets her characters feel for every choice that was made and every option that was passed, for every road not taken at every turning point of life.
The always mesmerizing Vanessa Redgrave, on her deathbed, keeps asking herself those questions as moments from the past come into her feverish, morphine-soaked mind. She particularly reviews the weekend when she was the maid of honor at her best friend’s wedding back in the ’50s in a lavish house on the rocky coast of New England. Redgrave is played in her youth (for reasons that escape all understanding) by an unprepossessing, plainspoken Claire Danes (Little Women), who bears no resemblance whatever in appearance, style, or temperament to the commanding, unendingly flirtatious Redgrave. Danes arrives in Newport, a simply dressed working girl from the Village, and promptly falls in love with Patrick Wilson (the “prom king” from Little Children). He’s a gorgeous young doctor who grew up with his mother, the family housekeeper, in a nearby cottage. He’s already spurned the advances of both the bride, Mamie Gummer (Meryl Streep’s captivating daughter and clone) and the bride’s dashing and drunk younger brother, Hugh Dancy. The family matriarch, Glenn Close, sees Wilson as someone from the servant’s quarters, and marries daughter Gummer off to a suitably boring young man from their social circle. The bride is flooded with tears as the hoped-for rescue by the heroic doctor doesn’t materialize. Instead, he takes up with the d¹class¹ maid of honor. The bride’s drunk and suicidal brother clings pathetically, in turn, to both the doctor and the maid of honor, who duck out together. A tragedy soon occurs, and the doctor, who’s off in an abandoned cottage with Danes, can’t be found. The romance between the humiliated working girl and the prom king is brushed aside in the horror of the night’s ending.
Forty years later, we’re back at Redgrave’s deathbed, as she tries to find words of wisdom to pass on to her daughters. One, Toni Collette (Little Miss Sunshine), can’t commit to a marriage or a career, as she worries that she’ll make the wrong choices. Colette is far too self-effacing to
be Vanessa Redgrave’s daughter. Natasha Richardson (Anna Christie on Broadway) actually is Redgrave’s daughter and should have been playing her in her youth. Instead, she plays an exhausted overachiever caring for her dying mother, a houseful of kids, and a detached husband. Neither of the daughters sees that she has choices in her life, but both recognize that there’s a secret which may be holding everyone in place.
Redgrave’s rambling dreams of a bypassed singing career and of lost lovers float through her mind, and she struggles with thoughts of how her life might have been different if she’d married the dashing doctor. And what if she’d sacrificed domesticity for her singing career? She keeps returning to dreams of the prom king–doctor, as if romantic fireworks would have solved life’s problems and its kaleidoscope of emotions, its predictable stages, and its surprises. Redgrave, gaunt and still, is always playful—and unendingly alive.
Danes’s youthful buddy (Gummer, the bride) has grown up to be none other than Meryl Streep—and to top off the movie, she drops by to see her dying old friend, Redgrave. Streep crawls onto the bed with Redgrave in one of the magical moments of cinema, and they ponder the wisdom of their years. Streep seems healthy and happy after nursing and burying her steady husband of all these years and raising her children. Sometimes she was happy, sometimes she was unhappy, she says, just as life is supposed to be. Redgrave asks where she chose wrong and is told by her wiser friend that there are no mistakes, only choices, and you live with them and get on with it. Every road is an adventure; every possibility comes with its own troubles, its own pitfalls.
We learn little of what happened to the doctor they both briefly loved. Gummer/Streep quickly forgot about him as she settled into a life in which such romantic considerations never rose to the surface. Danes/Redgrave thought she might have made the mistake of marrying all the wrong men and failing to marry the only right one. By thinking that, she sabotaged her chances of settling into life. A life can’t be lived with the full range of human emotions if it’s spent regretting the one who got away.
Much is wrong with Evening. It’s an unsuitably crowded canvas, and some of the casting is jarring. Michael Cunningham’s (The Hours) drastic surgery on the screenplay leaves a giant cast telling a simple story. Director Lajos Koltai made it beautiful and touching, but precious and incoherent. However, Redgrave makes her remembered life seem as important to us as it was to her. She’s majestic. And her scene with Meryl Streep is tender, wise, and understanding. Even after all this time apart, the old and necessary best friends understand everything there is to know about each other.
At the end of the film, after her talk with Streep, Redgrave appears to understand that there are no wrong choices in life—except indulging the fear that you’ve ruined your life by making one.
Frank Pittman, MD, was a longtime contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker.