Starring Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart
Imagine settling down to watch a DVD with your loved ones. The popcorn’s on the table, the pizza’s in the oven and everyone you care about is assembled in the living room, watching the movie with you. Bliss. Except, you can’t remember what this film is about. And you can’t remember the name of that actress, who was in, oh, what’s that show? So you turn around to ask your partner next to you what she’s called. And you realise – you don’t know who they are. Or who anyone in the room is. Or, in fact, what room you’re in at all.
Such a scenario is the stuff of nightmares. It’s also the stuff of real life, to a lesser or greater extent, for anybody afflicted by pathological memory loss, including Alzheimer’s disease. It’s one of those conditions we’ve all heard of – most of us know somebody affected by it, and most of us struggle to spell the damn term. For Alice Howland (the superlative Moore) the disease suddenly becomes her future. A have-it-all career woman, Alice is a professor of linguistics at Columbia University, New York. Married to an equally successful academic (Baldwin as a vaguely scientific John), the couple have three high-achieving/talented kids – Anna (Kate Bosworth) Tom (an under-used Hunter Parrish); and Lydia (the fabulous Kristen Stewart). Life of course seems pretty much perfect for Alice as the film starts, juxtaposing poignantly with the inevitable.
Directors Glatzer and Westmoreland cleverly introduce us to Alice’s declining mental faculties through copious soft-focus shots, with one of Alice losing her bearings during a jog being particularly resonant. Ilan Eshkeri’s score, often subtle, crescendos then stops during this scene, leaving nothing to detract from Moore’s sublime performance. The effort that Moore went to in order to truly understand what life is like when suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s is incredible; months of research interspersed with cognitive tests. It paid off. The winner of a host of awards for this role, including the Best Actress Oscar, Moore creates a believable and engaging character who is nevertheless not as perfect as those first appearances seemed.
This about turn stems from the fact that Still Alice doesn’t shy away from the awkwardness of real-life. Alice’s disease progresses, and both her mind and her family unravel in front of us. Not everyone copes with her disease. Not everyone rallies round with a smile on their face. And Alice herself is not above trying to use her condition to manipulate her family. She even memorably rants at one point about how Alzheimer’s isn’t sexy, and it’s true; as Alice says, if she had cancer, she wouldn’t feel so ashamed.
Shots of Alice undertaking the cognitive tests, talking to an unseen doctor at one point, are excruciating, a testament to Moore’s embodiment of the character and Glatzer and Westmoreland’s direction. It really is difficult watching somebody strain to think, particularly as Alice herself is very recognisable as a character; she’s your partner, your teacher, you. The scene where she checks out an Alzheimer’s Home is so very One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest that you wonder whether Alice can stay ‘struggling’ against her fate. The movie makes you think – what makes a person? Are we all the sum of our memories, our own capabilities? Would you stick around if your father/sister/partner wasn’t quite there anymore? As the film progresses, the Alice we saw at the start, that high-functioning professor, is hiding further and further behind a veil; a veil made of sadness, confusion, anger and hopelessness. This is truly frightening.
What makes Still Alice particularly bittersweet is the fact that it is Glatzer’s last film. Suffering from motor neurone disease, or ALS, the director and writer passed away this March. Having married duo Glatzer and Westmoreland combine on both the script and behind the camera gives Still Alice a strong sense of vision, and many have pointed out that Glatzer’s own battles with his illness appear to have given the film a more realistic edge. At least he got to witness the deserving acclaim given to his most successful project.
Whilst Still Alice touches on the wretched unfairness of Alzheimer’s, there is a positive element to it; not exactly hope, but something close to peace. I haven’t read Genova’s novel, but did feel intrigued enough to buy it, which shows something worked. The extras on the DVD are fantastic – the interviews are so different, and something I didn’t expect. All the big names from the cast and crew are represented, though it would have been nice to include Genova’s input. Hearing Glatzer and Westmoreland’s thoughts is intriguing, and sad. Ultimately, Still Alice is a moving, powerful film, anchored by fantastic performances from both Moore and Stewart. It will probably make you cry, and if you’ve ever walked into a room and forgotten what you’ve gone in for, you’ll be terrified. The thought of being cast off from your own sense of self, of sinking in a sea of confusion and unfamiliarity, is overwhelming. Yet so is the resilience of the human spirit.