It’s not hard to see what the BAFTA committee and the Academy saw in Julianne Moore. Capping an impeccable year (she was the best thing in daffy airplane thriller Non-Stop; had a magnificently horrendous turn in David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars; impressed as an icy insurgent leader in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1), Moore has finished with a performance of great finesse and honesty. Still Alice sees her utilising her skill set to the fullest and – simply put – doing what Julianne Moore does best: delving under the skin of an emotionally fraught character.
She plays Alice Howland, a well-to-do linguistics professor at Columbia University living in a nice part of New York, surrounded by her doting husband (Alec Baldwin) and three grown-up kids (played, respectively, by Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish). But a gut-wrenching diagnosis threatens to devastate Alice’s world: at just fifty, she has Alzheimer’s disease.
Directors and writers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s stark direction and tight script manage to chronicle Alice’s life living with Alzheimer’s in just 100 minutes, which is no mean feat. Gradually, they pick up the pace, at first depicting simple little moments of forgetfulness like Alice falling to recall words or appointments before quickening the rate of decay. The fast pace and effective time jumps means that we see every inch of Alice’s experience as a person diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and it makes for viewing that’s part gripping, part heartbreaking. Still Alice does not purport to be an easy watch and it’s all too clear that by the half an hour mark, we are watching something brutally honest. You’ll quickly learn that sincerity and frankness is Still Alice’s strong suit.
If anything other than a breathtakingly good drama, Still Alice is a spot-on study of the damning effects of Alzheimer’s on not just the sufferer – rather, a struggler, as Alice herself puts it – but their family too. We see the fallout of Alice’s diagnosis on her children and the ways in which they cope with the affliction that could potentially tear the family apart. Son Tom (Parrish) isn’t well served by the script, given very few moments alone with his mother and neither is daughter Anna (Bosworth) but the other Howland girl, Lydia is granted plenty of light and shade. She’s played by Kristen Stewart in what is, undoubtedly, a career-high performance; anyone who has doubted Stewart’s acting chops need only watch this in which she really proves she’s worth her salt. Regrettably overlooked in the awards season, Stewart should have been a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actress, but on the back of this, she’s bound to pick up more acting gigs.
However, despite some excellent performances down the line, the drama isn’t shouldered between the cast; Moore remains the emotional fulcrum here. A lesser actor would have depended on histrionics but Moore doesn’t need to, she’s capable of subtler techniques. Had she not scooped up the Best Actress gong at this year’s Oscar ceremony, you would have found me protesting outside the Academy headquarters. Her performance is nothing short of perfection: startling and, above all, real.
One scene sees Alice delivering a speech about living with Alzheimer’s, and it’s as gut-wrenching as you would expect. Then again, Still Alice is largely a gut-wrenching film; affecting on a subatomic level.
Another rather understatedly played scene between Alice and her husband, John (Baldwin) has the professor state that she wishes she had cancer instead of Alzheimer’s. It’s a horrible thing to hear out of context, but here it causes you to re-evaluate the sucker-punch consequences of Alzheimer’s and how underfunded research into a cure is. Alice states that Alzheimer’s is an internal solo struggle whereas there are charity fun runs and coloured ribbons and physical evidence for cancer sufferers, and this is the point where Still Alice hits home just how severe Alzheimer’s is. Coming out of my screening, my one hope is that Still Alice will be shown as widely as possible because it has tackled a delicate subject with great authenticity, candour and chutzpah.
There are elements of Still Alice in which it feels as if they’re laying it on a bit thickly: for example, Alice’s particular disease is emphasised by her career constructed around words and the science of language – but, generally, Still Alice is a richly layered and nuanced piece. With an iron-strong, Oscar-winning central performance from Julianne Moore, sterling supporting work from Kristen Stewart and a perfectly judged portrayal of someone living with Alzheimer’s disease, Still Alice is a must-see. And not just because it’s an excellent drama – it’s a life lesson, too.
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