Still Alice

UK Release Date March 6th 2015
Director Westmoreland and Glatzer
Starring Moore
Runtime 101 mins
Certificate PG 13
Reviewer Jo
Reviewed 19th March 2015

Are we defined by our memories? Without our memories what are our most important relationships? If I can no longer recognise my children, my partner, myself then  - who am I? These questions and many more are at the highly emotional core of Still Alice, the story of a prominent intellectual beset with early onset Alzheimer’s and featuring Julianne Moore’s Oscar winning performance as the eponymous Alice.

Based on Lisa Genova’s self published book, Still Alice deals with the titular eminent linguistics professor Alice Howland who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s at the stupendously young age of 50. This is a diagnosis that would be devastating to anyone but it pierces the very heart of Alice who is, as she herself says, ‘defined by her intellect’. We watch as Alice navigates her way round her disappearing mental faculties as her family watch on, patiently repeating words, phrases but at the same time mostly talking about her as if she is not in the room, treating her like a child, simply not knowing what to do. It is only wayward daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart) faces her mother head on and through the misery of the diagnoses and the inevitable march of the disease a new bond between them emerges like a butterfly. It is perhaps a family that although there is clearly love there perhaps there is not or has not been a huge amount of emotion. Alice completed her major work whist raising three children - something would have had to fall by the wayside. There is certainly a chill in the air surrounding this most perfect of families. A family of high achievers (bar Lydia) where perhaps affection hasn’t been the most important item on the agenda. Alice’s husband John (Alec Baldwin) is business like until the very end where we finally see him break.

I am a lover of words. A witty riposte. A beautiful poem. An inflammatory article. A book, a lecture, a speech. Words can be hugely affecting and powerful for the wrong and right reasons. The mind is a beautiful thing and to be renowned for intellect and use of words and then to have this ability slowly disappear from your amour must be the cruellest of nature's tricks. Alice says ‘I’d rather have cancer’. This is in no way to belittle the devastating disease that is cancer but I get where she’s coming from. Alice says ‘there are walks for cancer and pink ribbons’, this disease makes her feel embarrassed and guilty. It is hard to remain with dignity with a disease that destroys the very heart of who you are and what you are. This is such powerful way to force us to think about Alzheimer’s from the viewpoint of the sufferer. Perhaps because it is a disease mostly affecting the very old who are practically invisible in society anyway? Alice visits a care home, a mausoleum of once active minds reduced to very little interaction. It is a scene, which is despairing, and heart breaking and sadly very real.

Alice was of course the role that finally won Moore that elusive Oscar. I think she deserves a truckload of Oscars as I can’t actually think of a performance of hers that I didn’t like or engage with. Here though, as Alice, is Moore delivering a virtuoso performance. To be able to convey the irritation, the despair, and the disbelief that this diagnosis would give is no mean feat and she doesn’t put a foot wrong. Alice’s family are well played by Kate Bosworth as alpha daughter Anna,Hunter Parrish as doctor son Tom and Baldwin as John who is himself reaching the highlight of a career he’s worked his whole life for just as Alice is deteriorating. Baldwin’s performance is of a man who is restrained and business-like until we see him crack at the end and say to daughter Lydia ‘you’re a better man than me’. Queue floods of tears unless you have no pulse. They are all accomplished but this is Moore’s movie and we are most entranced when she is back centre stage or when she is with the rather brilliant Kristen Stewart who is truly great as fiery daughter Lydia. The two women together are beautiful and heart rending and Stewart is perfectly cast as Moore’s daughter.

As identity is at the epicentre of this tragic storm we see Alice’s face in close up a lot. Her self-examination, her doubts, her fear - all come pouring through as she looks in mirrors, TV screens, laptops and sees something more and more alien looking back at her. Alice becomes childlike. The once fiercely independent woman is needy. A child. Her dignity slowly being shredded by the disease. Directors and Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have wisely exploited Moore’s talents to the maximum. Glatzer himself died this year from motor neurone disease and was highly affected by the disease whilst he was making the film. Westmoreland and Glatzer were married as well as co directing and by the time filming began Glatzer’s speech function had gone and he was only able to communicate through an iPad. Glatzer was able to see Moore win her Oscar (from his hospital room) before his death and also see Eddie Redmayne receive an Oscar for his portrayal of Hawkings, a fellow Motor Neurone Disease sufferer. Westmoreland called Still Alice their salvation. 

In short:

Still Alice takes a good hard look at the family of someone with Alzheimer’s, especially this early in life and is brutally honest in showing the reluctance and difficulty of most close relatives to face it head on. To sit and watch their wife/mother deteriorate and also to have to let their own life slip away. Particularly this is tackled with honesty and bravery in the relationship with Alice’s husband. Baldwin does well to keep the empathy of the audience with the character. No one can be held accountable for what must be an utterly devastating decision to have to make. Centralised with an absolutely stunning performance by Moore, Still Alice forces us to look hard at an illness that makes us feel uncomfortable, to think about it in a different way, to remember the person before the illness. And that can only be a good thing.

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