Directed by: Wash Westmoreland, Richard Glatzer. Written by: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland, based on Still Alice by Lisa Genova. Starring: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish. Cinematography: Denis Lenoir. Editing: Nicolas Chaudeurge. Music: Ilan Eshkeri. Certificate: 12A. Running Time: 100 minutes. Year: 2015. Rating: 6.9
[Note: The majority of this review had been written before the announcement that the co-director of Still Alice, Richard Glatzer, had sadly passed away earlier this week at the age of 63.]
Still Alice – the drama containing Julianne Moore’s multi award-winning performance as a Columbia University linguistics professor diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease – has only just been released in the UK, and it’s good to finally be able to see her work, which has at the time of writing won more than 20 of the past year’s more prestigious ‘Best Actress’ titles. Oddly, Moore was regarded as a shoe-in for Oscar success by almost everyone who had an opinion on the matter this year, even those who haven’t actually watched this film; was it even worth the other nominees turning up? Of course it is an impressive turn, by a consistently impressive actress, and anyone familiar with the disease will be able to appreciate Moore’s authenticity in the way she portrays memory loss, confusion, apathy, problems with vocabulary and other symptoms that patients experience.
In this story – adapted from neuroscientist Lisa Genova’s bestseller – Moore’s character, Alice Howland, initially becomes forgetful, receives her diagnosis and subsequently moves through the different stages of the illness: early, to moderate, to advanced. Throughout she is surrounded by her close family, and the film examines the relationships Alice has with her husband John (Alec Baldwin), oldest daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth), son Tom (Hunter Parrish) and youngest daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart), including the way in which they change as Alice’s condition deteriorates. The family is made up of high achievers and their individual reactions to the news, plus their different ways of coping, makes for interesting viewing. Unfortunately Alice’s illness turns out to be genetic, inherited from her late father, and she is told that there’s a good chance it has been passed on to her children. Lawyer Anna is pregnant with twins and, like trainee doctor Tom, undergoes testing straight away. Aspiring LA-based actress Lydia, though in her own way just as driven as the rest of the Howlands, is seen as the ‘different’ one, and doesn’t want to know whether she will be affected in later life or not.
Setting Lydia apart from the group – geographically as well as in terms of her personality and career – means that her relationship with Alice is the most distant, and troubled, as well as being the one that changes the most within the time frame of this film. Alice repeatedly asks her youngest daughter to drop her chosen career and go to college, and their bond appears to be strained as a result, but it strengthens through artistic discourse as Alice’s condition worsens; in contrast Alice’s other familial relationships are more clinical and business-like, defined through scientific and academic discussion, and often lacking in raw emotion. The character of John is a great example: he is generally supportive but he wants to hear facts rather than discuss feelings, and an unwillingness to jeopardise his career makes for an occasionally unsympathetic portrait of a scientist and of a husband. When he reveals his innermost feelings at the end of the film for the first time it is an emotional punch to the audience’s gut.
Naturally this is a moving film, directed with simplicity by married couple Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer (who was living with ALS, or Motor Neurone Disease), which allows the focus to remain on Alice throughout. Her sense of disorientation and panic is rendered in an obvious fashion, usually with shallow depth of field ‘removing’ the character from the immediate environment, but it is at least an effective technique. You could argue that relying on Moore’s facial expressions alone would have worked just as well: witness for example the scene in which she suddenly becomes lost while jogging through the familiar terrain of her university campus, or the panic-stricken attempt to locate the toilet in the family’s seaside holiday home. It is magnificent acting by Moore, who remains believable throughout and never once overdoes things, subtly altering the character in a gradual fashion as her dementia worsens. I’ve seen this point made elsewhere, and I’m sorry to say I can’t remember where that was, but the gradual change in Moore’s performance is expertly revealed during a scene in which Alice stumbles across an earlier video she recorded when lucid, at the early stages of the illness. The difference, even though this is ‘still Alice’, is startling.
As the illness gets worse Westmoreland and Glatzer choose to repeat earlier scenes, another effective way of highlighting the deterioration that has taken place: thus Alice’s scores while playing Words With Friends with Anna drop dramatically, while two similar visits to a frozen yoghurt store reveal how much has changed in a relatively short period of time. There is awkwardness when Alice forgets she has already met Tom’s girlfriend, but later a similar scenario plays out with added sadness when Alice fails to recognize Lydia, her own daughter.
It’s hard to be too critical of the film, except to say that if you haven’t seen it it’s exactly the kind of movie you (probably) expect it to be. It’s worth highlighting Moore’s performance once again, which really turns Still Alice into a must-see, while the talented Kristen Stewart is also very good in support. The directors have dealt with the subject matter in a way that is sympathetic, understanding, respectful and moving, and the recent sad death of Glatzer means there’s an added poignancy to its release.