Even though the Oscars have come and gone, those of us in the UK are still catching up on the last of this years nominees. The biggest of which comes in the form of Still Alice, which saw Julianne Moore capturing a gong for the first time, despite four previous nominations. It’s a film that has taken on even more symbolic strength, following the death of Richard Glatzer, one of its directors. Having passed away at the age of 63 from motor neurone disease, his final film will probably be his best remembered.
Still Alice tells the story of a linguistic professor, the Alice from the title, who has been diagnosed with early on set Alzheimer’s disease. At only 50 years old and seemingly still at the top of the academic tree, she has to learn how to deal with the slow destruction of her mind, as she goes from a strong and independent person, into one who needs help to find her way around her own home.
It’s worth starting with the fact that Julianne Moore is fantastic here. Her journey with Alzheimer’s, from the opening minutes of the film when it is just hinted at as she struggles to remember a word, right through to the end when she can barely remember her own name, is masterfully done and at the same time completely heartbreaking. As her mental state deteriorates, Alice begins to change as a person, her previous confidence sapping away from her and the fight slowly fading away with her memories. One particular scene, in which she gives a speech at a conference about the disease, is unlikely to leave a dry eye in the room as she describes it’s most horrible of symptoms.
Her performance is aided by the supporting cast, which for a small budget film, is incredibly strong. Alec Baldwin plays her husband and it is nice to see him stepping back from the comedy and almost into the background. There is a story from his point of view, for example his repeated refusals to take a sabbatical and be with Alice, but he never tries to dominate the screen. The same can be said of Kristin Stewart, who plays the arty daughter, whose one wish is to trudge her own path in life. She becomes the one person who seems to be able to cope with her mothers disease and her raw and almost minimalist performance, is wonderfully placed next to Moore’s extraordinary turn.
If there’s a criticism, the film does occasionally descend into sentimentality. Don’t get me wrong, there is no happy ending here. Alice doesn’t ride off on a unicorn and disappear into the sunset. Alzheimer’s has no cure. But it also feels like there are harder times to show here, it does a great job of depicting the swings and roundabouts of Alzheimer’s disease. How on those good days you could almost not tell that there was anything wrong and while it does delve into those bad days it maybe doesn’t do so enough.
That’s a minor quibble however and Still Alice is still an incredibly powerful movie. Glatzer and his husband, Wash Westmoreland, have put a disease on-screen, that is too often not talked about. With the tragic early passing of Glatzer and also Terry Pratchett, who battled this disease so openly and did so much in order to bring it to the public attention, Still Alice takes on an even stronger message. It tells the story of someone fighting a losing battle and in doing so tells a story that can’t be ignored.