Directors: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland
Starring: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart
Running time: 101 minutes
The last time my father visited my grandmother, he showed her a photograph of my sister holding a lamb at a church spring service. My grandma grew up a farmer’s daughter, and she immediately told him what breed of lamb it was from the photograph. This is worth mentioning because my grandmother has sometimes been unable to remember who my father is. She has Alzheimer’s – an illness which, as Still Alice does a powerful but sometimes laboured job of showing, wipes away the memories that form a person’s identity or even their ability to care for themselves, with only traces remaining.
Still Alice gives its exploration of Alzheimer’s an additionally painful and dramatic dimension by focusing on the rarer Early-onset form. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is in the prime of her life – a linguistics professor at Columbia University, solidly married to John (Alec Baldwin), with three adult children enjoying largely successful lives of their own. But slowly, it begins to dawn that something’s wrong. Cruelly for a linguist, she begins to forget the day-to-day words that are the foundation of her life. Inevitably, she sees a neurologist and receives the diagnosis that will devastate her comfortable existence.
A story with this many emotional complexities and heartbreaks needs its central performer to rise to the challenge, and Julianne Moore, as ever, brings remarkable craft and depth to the role of Alice. She definitely deserved her Oscar for this performance, although her unrivalled body of work should have received more recognition long before this year’s ceremony. She makes every moment of Alice’s decline impossible to look away from – from her panicked near-hyperventilation when she gets lost, to her heartbreakingly stubborn attempts to keep her problems secret, to her final helplessness. Like me, many viewers of this film will know someone with Alzheimer’s, and the film captures the struggles of the relationship painfully well – the frustrating repetitiveness as they forget they asked you the same question a moment ago, the uncertainty as to whether to correct them when they get your name wrong. But, thanks to Moore, it also succeeds at something much more challenging – immersing us in Alice’s perspective, and giving us a glimpse of how frustrating and scary memory loss is to experience.
Alzheimer’s is, by its nature, anti-narrative, since the loss of memory means the loss of ability to tell a story about our lives. It’s hard to construct a plot out of Alice’s increasing helplessness. Her one attempt to regain her agency is harrowingly difficult, and the film remains wisely neutral on whether it’s even the right decision. Surprisingly, a satisfying narrative emerges around Alice’s prickly yet loving relationship with her youngest daughter, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), a punky misfit in a family of over-achievers who are quietly disappointed in her decision to pursue an unsuccessful Los Angeles acting career. Stewart clings to some of her much-mocked mannerisms from the Twilight franchise – the mid-sentence pauses, the lip-biting – but otherwise proves that she is a far more capable actor than she’s been given credit for.
Lydia, long labelled as the irresponsible child, is the one who’s most able to deal with her mother’s illness, but the relationship isn’t perfect. Still Alice fortunately doesn’t try to make its characters into suffering saints – Alice’s high standards can make her unfeeling and, in the memorable moment when she tries to use her illness to manipulate Lydia, outright cruel. Alec Baldwin, in his typically excellent performance as John, also brings out the flaws in his character’s reaction to the situation – from initially refusing to listen to Alice’s fears, to resenting the way her illness drags down his career as a scientist, he makes the irreversible mistakes that the film shows we often inflict on those we love.
With such a talented cast, it’s a shame that Still Alice sometimes feels the need to rely on expository dialogue to spell out themes the actors have already communicated unaided. There are other overwrought missteps, such as trying to draw parallels between the parts Lydia’s played and her family’s situation, and the use of a grainy stock footage effect in montages of idyllic family times, which The Theory of Everything has permanently ruined for me. The film feels like it was made to educate audiences about the effects of Alzheimer’s, and is the poorer for it compared to such works as Michael Haneke’s Amour and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, which also depicted the consequences of ageing and memory loss for relationships but were more interested in finding the philosophical tragedy behind their characters’ decay. But, thanks to a strong cast and an outstanding performance from Moore, the film fulfils its limited goals so well that it’s hard to remain dry-eyed watching Alice and her family struggle not to hold on to who she is.
To book tickets to see Still Alice at York City Screen Picturehouse, go here