At first, for Alice (Julianne Moore), its the little things. The minor frustrations we all suffer from occasionally. The kind of things that are only natural. She’ll be lecturing at Columbia and the word she’s seeking for becomes inexplicably out of reach. Or she’ll forget a dinner date. The sort of things you can chalk up to lapses in concentration. The usual check list of reasons. Then one day Alice goes running on campus and she becomes panicked; she’s lost. She’s on familiar ground but she can’t identify it’s geography. Form without meaning. It’s a horrible moment of realisation that something is definitely wrong. She goes to a neurologist. He runs some tests. At just 50, Alice is understandably shocked with the diagnosis of Early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease.
Still Alice, directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, is the last of the serious awards contenders to cross the finish line here in the UK. Unlike some of its fellow pictures (Birdman, Boyhood etc), Still Alice hasn’t been recognised in multiple areas. No, the attention has been drawn almost exclusively by Julianne Moore’s performance as Alice. It’s not hard to get a little cynical about these things, especially when an established actor pops up in a picture about serious illness to show us just how hard they can suffer just in time for awards season. That it’s Julianne Moore sees that suspicious eyebrow rise further still. As bottomlessly talented as she seems to be, the idea of her starring in some weepie like this smacks of self-parody, especially since that YouTube compilation of her crying started ricocheting across the internet. Along with her invigorating performance in Cronenberg’s Maps To The Stars, Still Alice suggests there’s plenty of material for an extended cut.
And yes, there’s a heavy helping of Oscar-bait about Still Alice (and hey look, it worked!) but, as with the better of these sort of pictures, there’s also the tonic of sincerity in the mix as well. Glatzer, Westmoreland and Moore want to do right by their subject matter. And on that score Still Alice manages to achieve without bluster or…
Damn, I’ve actually forgotten the word. I really have.
Not that I intend to mimic or make light of the effects of Alzheimer’s. Rather this genuine coincidence as I hammer this review out pointedly underlines the incredible frustration that Early-onset must accrue for those struggling with it, for whom instances such as these are not rarities but a cascade. That fustration is something Moore captures to a fault. In its first act, Still Alice plays like the beginning of some pervasive horror film, albeit without the ghoulish visual touchstones that particular genre relishes in. Alice’s symptoms are like an invading entity in her brain, stealing moments away from her, snatching this or that without warning or remorse.
The film avoids Hallmark melodrama largely by focusing on how Alice’s struggle is an intellectual one. A fiercely smart academic, she has always graded herself against her wits. When these faculties start failing her, the effect is excruciating and exceptionally personal. In addition, it’s nigh on impossible to approach this movie without knowing what it’s about. And so there’s a grim inevitability about watching it, especially in the early stages as the viewer tries to gauge just how Glatzer and Westmoreland are going to approach things. How raw is this going to be?
Getting to know Still Alice is arguably the film’s strongest dramatic hold card, as once a rather sedate tempo is established the audience is allowed to relax. Alice’s husband John (a solid Alec Baldwin) takes her away to their family beach house, and from there the film acquires a more steady level of sadness, as though the remainder is one long dissolve. A fade-out to white occurring not over seconds, but a whole hour. Which is not to say the film is unremarkable. A thought-provoking scene in which Alice records a suicide guide for her future self hangs over the film like the proverbial gun on the wall. When this element is reintroduced, the viewer is forced to ask just how they want things to play out. The answer isn’t easy to settle on. Elsewhere the film soars when Alice is tasked with giving a speech to the Alzheimer’s Association, a scene that mingles triumph with a hint of sentimentality as one wonders if this might be her last hurrah.
As fine a performance as this is from Moore, justifiably rewarded (but her best? that’s hard to say), there is another, lesser but significant player here worth noting. Kristen Stewart puts in easily her most likeable turn so far as Alice’s youngest daughter Lydia. The two of them together have the most appealing, believable relationship in the movie. Lydia’s move to California to pursue acting weighs heavy on Alice, whose idea of her daughter’s future involves academia and the footholds of a solid career. Lydia meanwhile is forced to watch her supposedly rigid mother soften and disperse. The two move in opposing trajectories, coming to know and accept one another better, and in turn themselves.
Glatzer and Westmoreland let the actors hold court. The film is largely devoid of directorial ego. Alice’s internal disintegration is visualised in the most literal but effective manner at their disposal; focus. Near the beginning of the picture they blur out her surroundings, while by the end it is Alice herself who starts to lose definition; reflected dully in television screens, masked by smudged mirrors or blurred out altogether. Otherwise, this is a well-built but rather unshowy piece of work. And if the movie feels a little vanilla, it is only when set beside more histrionic nightmare tales such as Requiem For A Dream. Still Alice has its share of misery, but it doesn’t play it to suffocate. Nevertheless there were sniffles in the audience I shared, and it’s tough to imagine wanting to experience the film over and over.
But what it does for Alzheimer’s awareness is a fine thing. Julianne Moore’s performance is a fine thing. Still Alice is a fine thing. It reminds us what a fragile thing it is to be a person. The way that such a thing can come to dust so senselessly is a frightening thought that’s going to fester.
I wish I could remember what that word was.