Julianne Moore stars as Dr. Alice Howland, a brilliant, esteemed, beautiful, and accomplished linguistics professor at Columbia University. She just turned 50 – she has a great family, a great home, a great life; slowly little things start eluding her: words, names, she gets lost during a run, she can’t remember where she placed her phone. It turns out that she has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and the film is about how her and her family respond to it. Co-directors and writers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have adapted this screenplay from Lisa Genova’s wonderful novel and they don’t shy away from the terrifying manner in which this disease takes hold of a person and dislodges their ability to communicate and connect with the outside world. They have succeeded in making a terrifying picture.
On the heels of Michael Haneke’s ‘Amour’, and Sarah Polley’s ‘Away From Her’, ‘Still Alice’ suffers a little by comparison. The film lacks the artistry of those terrific pictures; it fails to impress in terms of its production values (flat lighting, syrupy score, and unrefined transitions of scenes). Greatness eludes it, yes. But, greatness eludes almost every film adaptation of a successful novel, something we should be mindful of when we are faced with a good one.
‘Still Alice’ has its heart in the right place, and its message is so important – this is a movie that will resonate with so many people and especially help those who watched their loved ones defencelessly writhed by this relentless disease.
Julianne Moore’s performance is every bit as great as you have already heard. When the film had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, viewers speculated that Ms. Moore would be the frontrunner for the Best Actress Oscar. It has been over four months since TIFF14, and I don’t think anyone’s initial assessment has since changed. Julianne Moore will win the Best Actress Oscar on February 22nd. It is a very restrained, nuanced performance – the movement of her eyes when her neurologist gives her bad news, the spot-on notes she is able to hit within the slow degradation of her character’s psyche. Also, the fact that the character is an expert in what is happening to her, in the cognitive process of the mind, and how people process language, makes her an interesting tour guide through this rough terrain.
Alice’s family reacts in surprising but believable ways. Her husband John (Alec Baldwin) is a successful senior research physician whose work appears to sometimes take precedence over spending time with Alice; her son Tom (Hunter Parrish) is a medical school student; her eldest daughter, Anna (Kate Bosworth) is a lawyer; her youngest daughter Lydia (a great Kristen Stewart) has moved to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming an actress. You would think that Anna might step up and assume responsibility as caregiver, but it is Lydia who is more emotionally attuned to the needs of her mother. The central relationship in the film is between Alice and Lydia.
I’m also grateful that the movie doesn’t paint Alice as a perfect angel victim. Alice will use her condition to her advantage when she can – she goes to Pinkberry to get out of going to a dinner party she doesn’t want to attend (when her husband confronts her about this, she responds with “I’m sorry. I have Alzheimer’s.”), or to manipulate her youngest daughter into abandoning her dreams of becoming an actress and going to college as a final wish.
I had the pleasure of meeting Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland at the TIFF in 2013 for the premiere of ‘The Last of Robin Hood’. The two are a married writing and directing team. Mr. Glatzer was diagnosed with ALS in 2011 and lost his ability to speak. In recent years, he has been directing movies using a text to speech app on his iPad. This is a case of life imitating art – the filmmaking couple battling ALS while working together on this particular story only adds to the film’s poignancy. Glatzer seems to respond to the notion of being trapped within your own body, of suddenly having to rely on other people, and being unable to be as expressive as you would like. This is, to be sure, a personal story – not just in the raw and honest depiction of the illness, but also in its hopefulness. QED.