Remember at the start of the month I promised films like Big Eyes, Kingsman and Jupiter Ascending? Well, I’m a man of my word, so thanks to my local theatre here’s a review for Still Alice. P.S, new, shorter format! Enjoy!
Director Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland Starring Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish, Shane McRae, Stephen Kunken
You can pick the heavy-hitters months before release, usually from a poster or brief synopsis. Still, no matter how much preparation you put yourself through it’s always a tough ask to watch these emotional roller-coasters and not feel that lump in your throat. Just ask the Dudette.
Still Alice is one hell of an emotional ride, but it’s not a melodramatic depiction. It’s an incredibly realistic and confronting portrayal of a family doing their best to retain normalcy while fighting the effects the presence of Alzheimer’s has on them. It’s simple, never soaring at any point or shoving a message down your throat, but it is sad. You’re on the roller-coaster with them; when you watch it you most definitely feel it.
But on a deeper level it gives us some insight into those who suffer this disease themselves. It isn’t just memory loss but a loss of identity. That’s the gigantic hurdle presented in Still Alice, and summed up in a question: How do you deal with your own self falling away, piece by piece, while all you can do is sit by and consciously watch it happen?
Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is at the peak of her career as a linguistics professor who is soon robbed of her intellect by that which houses it. From losing her train of thought during a lecture to becoming disorientated while jogging on campus the first act is a meticulous look at her transition from a healthy woman to one with mental illness. After several sit-downs with Dr. Benjamin (Stephen Kunken) she’s diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease and is instantly confronted with the idea that she’s about to lose everything she ever made her Alice.
Alice almost goes through the five stages of grief throughout the second act, all of them expressed in various ways. Though somewhat resigned to her fate from the beginning she nevertheless goes through a period of denial, where she writes personal questions on her phone, tasking herself with answering every morning. Meanwhile she takes all her anger out on husband John (Alec Baldwin) but despite how tough the going gets he is beyond resilient, at no point ever letting her down. However she soon forgets she even has Alzheimer’s, ignorance becomes bliss and unfortunately the appreciation John deserves is also forgotten.
While she projects onto John we also have a little window to see what’s going on inside. On her phone we see her suffering as she starts spelling incorrectly and can’t play her scrabble app. While she is still conscious through her deterioration it all becomes too much, so she leaves herself a video from certain instructions that gives her a way out. Interestingly at one point it almost inadvertently comes to pass when she is no longer aware of what she is doing.
The transition between acts is near seamless, but it is there. The film cleverly explains the real effects of Alzheimer’s without acknowledging shifts in time, such as when Alice loses her phone, John finds it for her and she mentions looking for it the night before, only for John to remark it had been missing for a month. A second instance is when she momentarily doesn’t recognise her daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart). At first Alice is openly against Lydia’s career, and at one point even tries to exploit her disease to coerce her, but as she comes to terms with her disease she comes to terms with Lydia’s decisions and their strained relationship begins to mend.
Discussing the meaning of a play with Lydia, the film ends with their relationship renewed. Alice demonstrates that no matter how far gone she might be the connection to her family will see her remain the same person she always was by uttering one word: love.
Writers / directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have delivered a devastatingly honest adaptation that offers some brilliant insight into Alzheimer’s inside and out. It lacks suspense but is incredibly down to earth and unfolds so naturally it feels like a true story. Never at any point does it resort to melodrama or shove it’s themes and morals down our throats.
There is some marvellous cinematography and structure used inventively to explain the effects of Alzheimer’s disease on Alice. The highlight is Alice lost on campus, as everything goes not just out of focus but so blurred it’s all incomprehensible. But the stroke of genius is in the film’s overall structure. I doubt anyone can determine just how much time passes throughout, and that subtle scene in which Alice finds her missing phone is an amazing way to convey what kind of creature Alzheimer’s really is.
It’s not without some shortcomings. It’s so depressing in the later stages that if you’re susceptible you will cry, and the conveniences, from the monetary situation to the coincidence’s of Alice’s and John’s professions, cost the film some credibility. But despite this it doesn’t rob the film of its integrity.
Behind the scenes the film doesn’t have on outstanding aspect, but where it does shine is in Julianne Moore’s performance. With but a look in her eye she conveys a huge range of emotion in any one scene. She is convincing at every point in the film making her transition as she deteriorates beyond perfect. The bright and bubbly Alice compared to the later Alice that looks to have aged several years is like night and day, but it’s performed so perfectly by Moore that it’s entirely believable.
But in maintaining focus on Alice for the entire film leaves the supporting cast at the wayside. Kristen Stewart is her usual stone-faced self and while Alec Baldwin puts in a good showing he’s not given much room to move other than a minor subplot involving a relocation that goes nowhere. But that’s the way it’s meant to be as this is Moore’s showing, and any way they each play their roles, even down to Stephen Kunken, and their reactionary performances help to make Moore’s showing all the more heartfelt.
Trying to get your message across is one of the toughest asks in filmmaking and if you mess it up it can ruin what could be a great story. Some films don’t know what they’re talking about and others beat you around the head, but Still Alice has found that middle ground. They make it look easy, using the production process itself to convey their message clearly and succinctly while Moore’s performance anchors the whole thing and keeps it on the straight and narrow.
Alzheimer’s is a heavy subject in film and with any film that covers it there are always plenty of reasons to cry. But Still Alice is different, it doesn’t bother with the over-the-top tragedy or suspense because none of it is necessary for Alice’s story to be told. It’s not about the sickness and the sadness but simply an in-depth look at a loss of identity and determines what really changes and how much stays the same. It’s just what the title suggest; no matter how far gone she might be she is still, and will always be, Alice.
8 of 10