Still Alice (2014)
“Still Alice” is a film based on Lisa Genova’s 2007 best-selling novel of the same name and starring Julianne Moore in the role which landed her an Oscar for the best performance of the year. However, “Still Alice” is so much more than simply a demonstration of an interesting character study and Moore’s outstanding acting ability. It is a very important film, shedding light on a very misunderstood illness, and it was co-directed by the late Richard Glatzer, who was himself a sufferer of a motor neuron disease. The merit of the film lies in its ability to dramatise so well a story of one woman’s battle with an incurable illness, but do so so intelligently, delicately and movingly, the film becomes not only a powerful statement, but also an entertaining and totally engrossing watch.
Julianne Moore plays a Professor of linguistics at the prestigious Columbia University in New York. Alice Howland is a very intelligent, articulate person who tours the country giving fascinating lectures, and, apart from her successful professional life, she also has a devoted husband and three beautiful grown-up children. The cleverness of the drama here is that such a person “who all her life was defined by her intelligence” has suddenly found herself unable to clearly articulate her thoughts, remember the names for simple objects or find her own way back home from a jog in a park. In the movie, when Alice first visits a consultant neurologist fearing that there is something wrong with her memory, her speech is super fast, her vocabulary impressive and her attitude optimistic and professional. This image of Alice contrasts greatly with Alice by the end of the film, when she has already been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and her speech is slow and she cannot remember such a simple word as duck. Naturally, being a dramatisation, the film picks out the most dramatic (extreme) and embarrassing moments from Alice’s life as she tries to adjust to her new condition. Alice may have started with simple loss of direction and absent-mindedness, but as the film moves on, she cannot, at one point, recognise her own daughter and finds trouble finding a toilet in her own home. The world is shrinking around Alice, and the film shows Alice’s transition poignantly and unhurriedly.
Being only a film, it is also admirable how much insight the story here gives into Alzheimer’s disease and the consequences of its diagnosis. The audience finds out that the disease not only affects memory, but every aspect of a personality and well-being, from spacial orientation to facial recognition. The film also demonstrates how much people rely on their memory in their everyday life to define who they are, connect with others and lead meaningful lives. That means the disease causes depression, isolation and persistent fear, and, although the film shows Alice’s distress, it also emphasises the fact that people should not be defined by their illnesses, and there are positive copying strategies shown. For example, Alice gives a moving speech on her condition and Alice also uses technology to help remember things, as she learns “the art of losing everyday”.
Cinematically-speaking, “Still Alice” is also a well-made film. Cleverly starting with Alice’s birthday party, the film hints to the audience at the very beginning that this will be Alice’s story, and the movie feels very personal throughout. The camera work and the sequences are also top-notch. When Alice finds herself lost when jogging around the university campus, the camera is blurry as she cannot find her way home. However, when she finally realises where she is, the camera focus returns and the relief is felt. All these tricks help us to connect with Alice better, be it through her “existential” run in the park or through her contemplation of the sea at the beach.
This film would not have been that great if not for Julianne Moore’s heart-wrenching, powerful performance. She understood her heroine’s professional, composed side in the face of the growing disease, but she could also show extremely emotionally real outbursts of anger/distress when Alice confronts the injustice of having to live as a person for whom the doors of life are ever shrinking. It is really remarkable how accurately and powerfully Moore can embody two seemingly different people – the articulate and full-of-life Alice at the very early onset of her disease and that Alice who can no longer take care of herself on her own by the end of the film. As for the supporting cast, Alec Baldwin supported Cate Blanchett only the year before for her to then win an Oscar for “Blue Jasmine” (2013), and now, here, Baldwin is again good in the role of now faithful husband to the Alzheimer’s disease sufferer. Kristen Stewart was well praised here for her performance of Alice’s daughter Lydia, but, apart from portraying a rebellious teen with ease, Stewart’s performance still comes off as too self-conscious and pretentious, similar to her later role in “Personal Shopper” (2016). Stewart redeems herself somewhat at the very end of the film, where there is the most touching sequence imaginable taking place between the mother and the daughter, with the result being that the film ends on a very strong, moving note.
“Still Alice” is one of those considerate, inspirational, eye-opening films that everyone will be glad to have watched. Though dramatic, it is never over-sentimental, and depicts powerfully both the daily struggles of living with the illness and the heroine’s journey of dealing with it. It is true that the film largely relies on Moore’s spell-binding performance and the character study, but “Still Alice” also has this delicate, thought-provoking touch throughout, just sufficient for everyone to start contemplating how much in our daily life we really take for granted. 9/10