Dying at Grace is a film by Allan King, a preeminent documentary filmmaker celebrated in 2005 by the Criterion Collection with a multi-disc DVD release, “The Actuality Dramas of Allan King” which included not only Dying at Grace, but four others including Warrendale and A Married Couple. Dying at Grace examines the daily life within a palliative care unit, Toronto’s Grace Health facility. It follows the story of five terminally ill patients through their treatments, daily care and death with hopes of demystifying the process to those not previously intimate with the fate that awaits us all.
The opening moments of the film show hospital staffers dealing with a recently deceased patient concluding with depositing the body into a refrigerated drawer. With this, there can be no mistake of the heaviness of subject that follows. We are initially introduced to two elderly female patients, one within the throws of her final descent, the other still coherent and struggling with the drugs, actually the entire system, in place to keep her limping through a muted existence. These two appear somewhat prepared for what will soon befall them and at exude some level of peace with the finality. We journey with them through their last breaths and while trying, it only heightens the life-affirming qualities of this film.
Enter the younger woman with breast cancer, an even younger man with a debilitating muscular disease, and an elderly gentleman with hepatitis C, and you begin to see the variances in living with the specter of death. We see the breast cancer diagnosee in heart-breaking denial of the terminal-sentence leveled against her when she speaks of searching for a new place to live and what she will do when she gets out. The young man who can barely speak only to express his perpetual state of depression and anger at what has befallen the body he is entombed within. The elderly gentleman with hepatitis who continually devolves into a hallucinatory state where his paranoia takes hold and he tries to escape, sometimes violently, to his own detriment.
But, whatever the story, whatever path led them to this hospital and the state they arrive, they all suffer the same fate and we are the hesitant witness to their demise. When they are in the final throws, something happens that any hospital attendee who has dealt with death can attest to, a final death mask descends and they are locked within a process that cannot be reversed. By that time, it appears the life, the character that once animated these very singular souls has faded and their faces all convey the skeletal mask telling of their immediate fate.
This film is heavy, in fact, one of the heaviest films I have ever seen. However, it is necessary. With Dying at Grace, Allan King succeeded in examining what fate we all share, but does so with unflinching realism and a surprisingly delicate touch. These patients are surrounded by loving family and a staff that is caring and attentive as they face something that still remains a great mystery in many aspects. This film presents the reality for these patients and dares us to ask tough questions. What is the dignity (if there is any) in death? What basic conditions should be met for humans at the time of our passing? Do the rich and the forgotten deserve the same treatment? While there is no agenda other than the stark presentation of death, it begs a necessary dialogue on death and the affect it has on those it leaves behind.
4 out of 5 stars.