Still Alice

STILL ALICE. Starring: Julianne Moore, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish, and Alec Baldwin. Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. Rated M (Mature themes and infrequent coarse language). 101 min.

This is an American drama based on the 2007 best selling novel of the same name by Lisa Genova, a neuroscientist. It is the story of a distinguished academic, who was diagnosed with early onset, Alzheimer's disease. It has won multiple awards in the Best Actress category for Julianne Moore across the USA, and she has been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar (yet to be decided) in 2015.

Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is a brilliant linguistics Professor at Columbia University, New York. She is married to a loving husband, John (Alec Baldwin) and has three grown-up children - Lydia (Kristen Stewart), Anna (Kate Bosworth), and Tom (Hunter Parrish).

The film starts by showing Alice as a happy, confident, competent woman, whose husband thinks she is "the most beautiful, intelligent woman he has ever known in his entire life." But her intelligence starts to fade. Words begin to elude Alice in her academic lectures; she becomes disoriented while jogging; and she begins to forget events she knows she should remember. Moore acts out Alice's initial worries casually in a way that serves to heighten their observed importance.

After a medical check, Alice is told that she has a rare genetic form of Alzheimer's disease that threatens herself and her family. But also, she knows that the cognitive competency that led her to the top of her profession is going.

Moore gives an outstanding performance as the stricken wife, mother and professional, whose simple acts of forgetting slip inevitably into serious impairment when memory of what her husband, children and other people do and did becomes seriously affected. She captures Alice's mental deterioration superbly. The deterioration is rapid and relentless, and Moore portrays it very movingly.

The disease destroys Alice's ability to communicate and relate meaningfully to others. Alice tries first to mask her illness, and to look for possible ways of coping, but then finds she cannot. Moore transmits Alice's fear through characteristic gestures and gazes in ways that denote internal "struggle" rather than "suffering". Her performance does not overplay the struggle, but there is never any doubt about the enormous toll of the disease. She conveys precisely the collapse of Alice's inner world, and the panic it causes her. Euthanasia is contemplated by Alice as a possible solution while she is cognitively rational, but the movie goes on to show that such an option eludes Alice entirely - Alice   can't process what taking her own life means, because the disease has taken over her mind. It is a telling point to make.

The impact of the disease on others is conveyed well by Alice's husband and her children, but some of them cope far better than others with the knowledge they are losing a loved one who is becoming a stranger. All the time the direction of the film keeps its focus firmly and intentionally on Alice. It virtually places us inside Alice's head and shows us people, who don't do all they can to help her, not through selfishness perhaps as much as ignorance of how best to cope with their own anxieties. Kristen Stewart is particularly compelling as Lydia, Alice's ambitious daughter, who wants to become a successful actress. She struggles with how to stay connected to a mother whose identity as "still Alice" is slipping away.

There are other good films about Alzheimer's disease, such as Sarah Polley's magnificent "Away from Her" (2006), which develops the effects of Alzheimer's on the film's multiple characters more penetratingly and more inclusively, but this movie stands out by delving intensely and effectively into the victim's experience to show the effect of the disease on the person who has it.

This is a powerfully honest film, that has the potential to disturb. No one wants what happens to Alice. Despite its effect on handkerchief-tugging, the film is basically an unsentimental treatment of an insidious disease that educates as much as it deserves to be seen. And Moore is wonderful in the title role.

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

Icon Films

Released January 29th., 2015

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