Still Alice (2014)

Still Alice

In Glatzer and Westmoreland’s Still Alice Julianne Moore gives a moving, Oscar-winning performance as a woman struggling to retain her sense of self as she develops early onset Alzheimer’s.

Goodbye To Language

by Alexa Dalby

Still Alice

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

If I could, I would give five stars to Julianne Moore for her performance as Dr Alice Howland, the Columbia linguistics professor suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s. But there’s no need for extra plaudits – she has already received a Best Actress Oscar for it and she has talked extensively about the research she did with sufferers to get it right. The film opens with Alice’s 50th birthday party, a warm, family gathering in a restaurant at which she suddenly finds herself losing her words. That’s the bitter irony of her condition – the disease progressively robs her of her ability to use language and thus her specialism and her professional career. Soon, out for her regular jog on the university campus, everything blurs, she loses her memory and can’t remember how to get home.

Alice is part of a high-income professional family, so she immediately gets the best medical assessment and support. In that way the film’s setting is somewhat rarified and unrealistic. Her family – husband (Alec Baldwin) and adult children (Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish and Kristen Stewart) – are supportive in as far as they are able to understand what is happening to her. Her decline is rapid, compressed for the sake of the narrative, though there are well-observed insights. In her early despair at the humiliations she feels Alzheimer’s is inflicting on her, Alice says “I wish I had cancer. I wouldn’t feel so ashamed.”

As someone who has been a high achiever, Alice tries to keep control and make far-sighted arrangments for the future. She tests herself constantly to see if she can remember the meanings of words. She makes a video for herself giving instructions for finding the pills to overdose on when she feels she is no longer able to go on. One of the saddest scenes in the film comes when, months later, she inadvertently opens the forgotten video file. But by now her disease has progressed so far that she struggles to understand and comply with her own instructions. Seeing the video from the recent past also shows how Moore has subtly developed her characterisation of Alice over the course of the film. The video is Alice’s earlier self. We see the contrast between Alice then – groomed, alert, articulate and healthy – and Alice now – unkempt, pale, shapeless, with some spark gone in her eyes. Yet the film also has its uplifting scene. Alice seizes one last triumph for herself and for sufferers by making her swansong speech at an Alzheimer’s conference about what it feels like to lose her sense of self and to struggle to stay connected to who she once was. It shows in detail how difficult it is for her to do this, and the little techniques she uses to work around the limitations forced on her by her illness. Of course, she receives a standing ovation.

Kristen Stewart as Alice’s actress daughter Lydia delivers a surprisingly nuanced performance and, apart from Moore, is the other highlight of the film. When Alice’s husband moves away to further his career, a change Alice is unable to cope with, Lydia unexpectedly moves from her home in California to care for her mother, though initially she seemed the least likely to do so. She is also the only one of the family able to relate to the changed persona of her mother and to communicate with her emotionally, even though now Alice is barely able to speak. Alice can no longer understand the words Lydia quotes from the play she is in, but she understands that they are about love.

Yet despite Julianne Moore’s wonderful performance, the overall feel of the film is educational – almost too researched – in the detailed, almost televisual way it portrays the progress of the disease and coping techniques. That Alice is a linguistics professor who loses language is too ironic. It seems overdoing it that the disease is genetic and one of her daughters is trying to have a baby. Apart from Lydia, the other members of the family are sketchily delineated. Despite these reservations, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s Still Alice succeeds in being intensely moving but mainly because of Moore.

Still Alice is released on 6th March 2015 in the UK

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