It’s impossible to pinpoint the first memory embezzled under Alzheimer’s rampage through the tangled web of neurons and chemical pulses of the human brain. Since even the healthiest of minds can find itself prone to moments of absent-mindedness the illness looms large over all of us, especially in an ageing society that clings to individualism. In Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s adaptation of Lisa Genova’s novel Still Alice (2014) this increasingly prevalent fear is confronted head-on, sidestepping the well-trodden route of similar dramas and choosing to inhabit the deteriorating world of the sufferer, played in this instance by recent Academy Award winner Julianne Moore.
Undoubtedly Moore’s film, there’s barely a scene in which she isn’t centre stage. Playing Dr. Alice Howland, an author and professor of linguistics at Columbia (a vocation that makes her fate particularly cruel), we monitor Alice from her diagnosis with early onset Alzheimer’s to her mind’s inevitable surrender to the disease. Told through an elliptical narration that only acts to emphasise the devastating effect of her waning cogitative state, the film depicts Alice’s decline with grace and compassion. As she attempts to maintain a degree of normality, employing word games and brain exercises in an attempt to mitigate her diminishing memory, the decline gradually becomes too difficult to avoid – she gets lost whilst jogging around the university campus.
She also mistakes her son’s wife for a stranger and eventually begins to forget the names of her husband and children. As she grows increasingly unacquainted with the face she sees in the mirror we bare witness as the disease slowly drains the final semblance of identity from Alice’s unflinching veneer of dogged determination. Fans of Moore’s previous performances will be drawn to Still Alice thanks to her recent Oscar victory. However Alice is too burdened by her illness for Moore’s remarkable articulation of inner-turmoil to resonate with the same emotional heft. Whilst traces of her magnificence turns in films like Safe and Far From Heaven are present, be it in the duplicitous smile that compounds her faltering resolve to a subtle quiver, or the shared moments of clarity she enjoys with her daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart), the role feels too ostentatious and burdened by a collective sense of anxiety to come across as the harrowingly personal tale of tragedy it promises.
This sense that Still Alice is more enamoured with exploiting the fears of a society living longer than ever before by making a sympathetic, yet identifiable study of Alzheimer’s rather than inhabiting the more subjective experiences of its cast is corroborated by an invasive score that eulogises each of Alice’s lost memories with an overwhelming surge of maudlin strings. A commendable decision not to wallow in the discomfiture and humiliation that accompanies the downfall (wetting her pants is about as uncompromising as the film gets) allows Still Alice transcends its televisual aesthetics and never feel excessively calculated to shock. However, by choosing emotional turmoil over a more nuanced or diagnostic approach to the subject leaves the film flat and inert. Watching Alice fade graciously into the background of her own life does not make for a particularly revelatory experience and searching for emotional authenticity within the environs of a college professor and her affluent family barely touches on the truly devastating repercussions of Alzheimer’s; especially for those suffering without the safety net of a privileged upbringing. A desire to avoid sentimentality is admirable, yet Still Alice relies entirely on Moore’s performance to mask its multitude of shortcomings.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble