Still Alice (2014)
Dirs: Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland
Academy Award Nomination: Actress in a Leading Role.
There are more than enough films about cancer, so it’s a welcome change to see another serious illness being explored, even if it does make you worry about your own memory.
Alice (Julianne Moore) is a very well-respected linguistics professor and author, who along with her also academic husband (Alec Baldwin) has three grown up children (including Kristen Stewart and Kate Bosworth) who have left home. When Alice is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, she and her family must adapt as her relationship with them and her whole world rapidly begins to change.
Straight away from the opening we meet Alice and her family, it’s like we’re invited to their birthday meal, and this sets up the film well as these are the relationships that are most valued to her and will be most tested. It becomes even more poignant when we learn that Alice’s type of Alzheimer’s could be passed on to her children, and it becomes more than just about her and is partially a family drama, showing their reactions and adapting to the situation, possibly not in the way that Alice, or we as an audience, could foresee.
The strong theme of language is developed through the film, there’s a tragic irony that she’s an expert on the inherent learning of language, yet one of the first signs of her Alzheimer’s is forgetting words and steadily losing the ability to express herself fully. This dramatic technique is used to really heighten the emotional impact of her situation. Characters note how she’s an accomplished woman who wrote her book while raising three children, clearly very much an academic, yet she’s struck by the impact that the disease has on her and expresses her fear that she will lose everything she had worked her entire life for.
There’s an excellent main cast, Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin were briefly a couple in ’30 Rock’ so it made me smile to see them together here, though this is far more sombre subject matter than that show. Kristen Stewart is possibly at her best, I’m not much of a fan of hers but here she is really very good, taking the largest of the roles for the children. It’s nice how it is developed from them having frequent arguments to her stepping up and becoming the most supportive family member, an excellent role that she does justice to.
Julianne Moore is excellent, showing the progression of the disease very clearly, and with a very strong emotional effect. As time goes on Alice displays more frequent memory lapses, some at first are ambiguous, others are clearly the Alzheimer’s. There’s also an excellent physical aspect to her performance, going from a confident outgoing woman, and gradually becoming far less sure, even reflected in her clothing and hair. There’s also opportunity for Alice to express how the disease is affecting her and how she’s feeling when giving a presentation at a conference, it’s a beautifully moving speech and vocalises all the things we’re seeing displayed.
The directors employ some brilliant techniques to convey Alice’s confusion, most notably with the use of focus. When she first gets lost when out for a run, the depth of field is very shallow, only Alice herself is in focus while everything around her is temporarily hazy, instantly showing that she’s unsure where she is. This is used a few more times in the film and at each point clearly helps us to understand how she’s feeling, and what it is that she’s struggling with. Also there’s brilliant manipulation of our perception of time, with some changes of location happening with no warning so that it takes us as viewers a moment to work out where Alice is as she’s also thinking the same. In one particularly effective scene Alice can’t find her phone, it’s found in the next scene and she’s relieved saying ‘I was looking for that last night’, but we’re then told that the previous scene was a whole month ago and we’re left a bit shocked as we have no way of telling that either. Alice’s daughter’s pregnancy can be used as an indicator of time in a few scenes, though it’s terrible to realise the extent of her decline in just 9 months. Tests show the decline, both with her doctor, but also her own questions on the phone.
It’s a tough watch, and would be even more so for anyone who has personal experience of a loved one with this disease or anything like it. With a running time of well under two hours Alice’s deterioration is rapid, possibly even shockingly so, but Julianne Moore really has to be highly commended for her performance, she had me gripped and emotionally on her side right from the start and throughout. There’s one particular scene that had me right on the edge of my seat and almost shouting at the screen in rapt attention, where we as an audience realise that we have a lot more comprehension of the situation than Alice herself does. In what feels like a turning point in the film, we see her inability to care for herself anymore, how she struggles to even assert her own wishes, and it is one of the most effective things I’ve seen.
Without wanting to sound glib, this really is quite a memorable film with a central performance that will be hard to forget, and I expect that will be proven with even more award wins for Julianne Moore.