Cast: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish
Directors: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland
Writers: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland
When a film undertakes the task of portraying the effects of a devastating disease such as cancer, dementia, AIDs, and so forth, it is often the case that they’ll try to appeal to the audience’s sentimentality whilst avoiding the bleak and messy bits that come in between. What sets Still Alice apart is its uncompromising honesty and bravery. This is a film that is not afraid to show just how difficult Alzheimer’s disease can be on an emotional level. The struggle of Alice and her family to try and retain her sense of who she is is unflinching in its brutality. The film never resorts to pathos but instead captures the audience’s attention and sympathy by portraying the dismal effects that this disease has on Alice and her family and simply letting their story speak for itself. The level of cold honesty that this film conveys is one that I haven’t seen since Michael Haneke’s Amour.
Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is a smart and accomplished woman who has enjoyed a happy and fulfilling life. She has managed to maintain a strong and loving marriage with her husband John (Alec Baldwin) all the while balancing the feats of raising three children and pursuing a highly successful career as a professor of linguistics. It is not a perfect fairy-tale life. There are cracks in the seams such as the rocky relationship between Alice and her youngest daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart), but on the whole they are content.
On her fiftieth birthday Alice and her family have a get together to mark the occasion. It is on this night that Alice begins to show the early signs of her disease. It is an offhand throwaway remark in which she confuses a story about her two daughters with one about herself and her own sister. It is shrugged off and forgotten by all as soon as it passes. However, as the days and the weeks go by, these lapses of memory start occurring more frequently. She appears at a university to give a guest lecture and loses her train of thought mid-sentence. She goes jogging along her usual route and gets lost for a few brief seconds. These happenings cause her enough concern that she visits the hospital for a check-up. After a few scans and memory tests, Alice is told that the diagnosis is early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Alice’s world collapses at this point. She is told that she has a disease which will slowly but surely eat away at her until she loses her memories, her identity, and her humanity. On top of that, the form of the disease that she has caught is a rare genetic one meaning there is a 50/50 chance that any one of her children could be a carrier. However Alice refuses to be defeated by this disease. She resolves to do as much as she can while she is able. She wants to continue working, she wants to see her grandchildren born, and she wants to continue living her life. She rigorously exercises her memory by providing herself with words to memorise and questions to answer. Every step is a struggle and not every goal is one that she can achieve. There are some days when she is almost herself but there are others when she is completely lost. Her determination and resolve are utterly compelling which is why it is so despairing to see her fight a losing battle. She is so desperate to maintain what little control she can that she even leaves herself a message and a means of taking her own life should the day ever come when her former self is completely gone.
Last night Julianne Moore deservedly won an Oscar (and about time too!) for the tragically powerful performance she gives in this film. Her depiction of the effects of Alzheimer’s disease combined with the desolation and anguish she conveys is absolutely extraordinary. As the remnants of who Alice once was gradually disappear, so does any sign of the actress. What is left is a moving and painfully truthful performance. Also deserving of praise is Baldwin as her loyal, steadfast husband. Although it breaks his heart to see his wife disappear before his eyes, John understands that it is up to him to carry them both. He exhibits an exceptional level of sensitivity and patience in his care of Alice, even at the times when it is most difficult for them both. Baldwin delivers in every aspect.
Still Alice is a heartbreakingly beautiful film about the loss of one’s self. It offers a harrowing portrayal of what it is like to watch someone you love disappear before your very eyes. The fact that Alice understands exactly what is happening to her but is powerless to do anything about it makes it all the more devastating to watch. In one of the most poignant scenes in the film Alice maintains that she is not suffering, but struggling. She is struggling to hold onto the memories of who she is and of her family. Without them, she is nothing.