Still Alice

An achingly sad and deeply affecting film that leaves you emotionally jarred long after you’ve left the screen.

by Andrew Brooker (@Brooker411)

still alice 1I’m sure I can’t be the only person that’s terrified by the idea of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a life destroying illness that your everyday passer-by simply can’t see. Almost anyone you walk past could have it and you’d never know it. You can’t see the pain and turmoil that the person is going through. You can’t see them desperately trying to remember their dog’s name or which bus they need to get home, scared that they barely remember their address. It’s this anguish that Still Alice tries very hard to show us. And while it may not hit every note spot on, it’s a brilliantly scary little glimpse into the lives of those people you’ve been walking past.

Now I’ve only seen a couple of films that deal with dementia in any of its various forms and while they’ve all been great and the performances solid, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that dealt with the early onset of such an horrendous condition. The idea of losing those faculties long before anyone should is one that directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have brought to the big screen and while previous films I’d seen have been decent, by the time I finally got to see it, Julianne Moore had already won her Best Actress Oscar for this film, so my expectations were sky-high.

Based on Lisa Genova’s self published 2007 book, Still Alice sees Julianne Moore take on the roll of Dr. Alice Howland, a world renowned professor that teaches linguistics at a New York university, who’s life is turned upside down when a forgetful spell or two ends with her in a doctor’s office being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Instantly, her and her family are thrown head first into the harrowing challenge of living with the degenerative disease. It’s a story as much about Alice’s family as it is about her and her struggle. How they handle the news being broken to them, through to how they handle the diagnosis and its subsequent changes to everyone’s day-to-day lives.

Alice’s struggle to fight with the disease while trying to enjoy her time with her family, creating fresh memories even as they are failing her is brought to the screen with a brilliant performance from Julianne Moore. Every time she desperately tries to remember something or someone, the panic and anguish she shows us is absolutely heart breaking and her moments of clarity are just as powerful. Those moments that allow Alice to be a mother and a wife the way she used to, even for just a little while, are as emotionally tugging and physically draining as any scene depicting her degenerating mental health. One poignant scene has her explaining to her youngest daughter just how it feels to live with the disease. The presence of mind Alice has as she explains how it feels to live with precious little of it is such a powerful moment that I defy anyone to not be left with a lump in their throat. The juxtaposition of this completely lucid person explaining not just to her daughter, but the audience, how it feels living with a terrifying illness that takes your cognisance from you is just one gut punch in a film filled with them.

Of course, Julianne Moore isn’t alone on the screen. She has a decent cast supporting her and they make a pretty interesting family. Husband, John (Alec Baldwin), daughters Lydia (Kristen Stewart) and Anna (Kate Bosworth) and son Tom (Hunter Parrish). All of them rally around Alice, in their way, to help her through her illness. The film does a decent job of showing how people can try to understand the problems sufferers like Alice go through, but can’t truly know how it feels. While the supporting cast are absolutely there to help Moore’s light shine a little brighter, they all do a great job of giving her a board to bounce off and making sure we see her full range against them.

Honourable mention, however, must go to Kristen Stewart. Still Alice is one of a pair of films that she has been in recently that I am desperate to see, hoping she can finally shift that Twilight and Snow White thing that seems to be plaguing her and show herself as a decent actress. So far, I’m not disappointed. On paper, as the rebellious younger daughter, this film wouldn’t be stretching her talents too much. But she gives an exceptional, emotional performance as Lydia and it gives me hope that she can come out from this with a few decent roles and shake off the mopey teen we all think she is.

Still Alice is a sad film to watch and a painful film to experience, but it is necessary viewing none the less. The tale of how this most horrible of diseases takes everything away from even the richest and smartest of people will leave you with a pit in your stomach long after the credits have rolled. There has been discussion about Julianne Moore’s status this past year as an Oscar contender with at least one other film making us all turn our heads and scream for a nomination for her. But make no mistake, Alice is one of the greatest performances I’ve seen on screen. Not just from Julianne Moore, but at all.

As an aside, a challenge. When you see this film, very early on Julianne Moore’s Alice is given a memory test. You’ll know what it is when it happens. Try and pass it. Just try. You’ll be sitting there frantically trying to remember the things you need to remember and concentrate on everything else that is going on. You know what? You’ll fail it. I did. Tell me you don’t feel a little empathy for Alice after you’ve sat for your two hour film knowing you failed it too.

Still Alice is out in cinemas in the UK right now (finally) and you can catch Andrew on the next episode of the Failed Critics podcast.

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