(M) Starring: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart
Alzheimer’s is among the cruellest of diseases. You lose your memories, your personality, and ultimately yourself. Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, Still Alice does not shy away from the challenging nature of this subject matter. Coming from a novel by neuroscientist Lisa Genova, and with Glatzer himself suffering from a neurodegenerative disorder (ALS), this is an honest and highly personal film.
Dr Alice Howland (Julianne Moore, who won an Oscar for this performance) is a brilliant woman. An influential linguistics professor at Columbia University in New York, she is a powerful and confident intellectual. Shortly after her 50th birthday, she starts to experience mental blanks, occasionally forgetting words or appointments. Suspecting something isn’t right, she visits a neurologist where, after some tests, she gets the diagnosis: early-onset Alzheimer’s.
Alice has a husband, John (Alec Baldwin), a medical researcher, and three children; lawyer Anna (Kate Bosworth), doctor Tom (Hunter Parish), and the black sheep of the family, aspiring actor Lydia (Kristen Stewart). Usually a film exploring this issue would focus on the family and how they come to terms with the gradual disappearance of their mother. But Still Alice insists on making Alice the centre of attention. Hers is a rare variety of Alzheimer’s which is passed on genetically, meaning there is a fifty per cent chance each of her children has the same gene. But even when that hereditary risk is announced, our focus remains upon how Alice handles the idea that this fate could await her children (not just on how the latter cope with the news). Still Alice is Alice’s story. It is about how she copes with what is happening to her, or to borrow a phrase from poet Elizabeth Bishop, how she masters “the art of losing”.
The effectiveness of Still Alice hinges on its lead actress, and Julianne Moore’s performance is astounding. Moore takes us on Alice’s emotional journey, through anger, frustration and fear. A proud woman who has always been defined by her intellect, she frustratedly exclaims, “I wish I had cancer… Then I wouldn’t feel so ashamed.” We follow her from a place of astute awareness of what is happening to her, to the point where that awareness is gone. The increments are subtle, but the deterioration is inevitable. We see the spark of recognition disappear from her eyes. Moore’s performance is aided by a subtle effort from the filmmakers to visually represent her internal, mental experience. By using shallow focus, they create situations in which everything around Alice looks hazy. Their use of long takes enables situations to last long enough for Alice to forget how they started.
A very straight, linear narrative, Still Alice is limited by the nature of its subject matter. There is really only one way this story can go. There is no cure. She will deteriorate. But while the filmmakers have the courage to follow this descent, they do manage to find an honest moment of hope with which to finish this remarkable and significant film.
Sadly, co-director Richard Glatzer lost his battle with ALS, passing away in March 2015, only weeks after seeing Julianne Moore win the Academy Award.