Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is a linguist, someone who has made language acquisition her life’s work; she has literally written the book on the subject. She lives in New York with her busy doctor husband John (Alec Baldwin), teaches at Columbia, has a brood of adult children and a busy life of conferences and social engagements. So when midway through a presentation she forgets a word – she manages to come out with ‘word stock’ but the word she was grasping for was ‘lexicon’ – it is a worrying niggle but nothing more. In fact, Alice is more distracted by her daughter Lydia’s determination to become an actor rather than go to college.
However, further symptoms present and in a wonderfully austere one shot appointment with her neurologist, Alice begins to get an inkling that something is seriously wrong and sure enough she is diagnosed with a rare kind of Alzheimer’s Disease. Based on Lisa Genova’s 2007 novel, Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer’s adaptation Still Alice (2014) is an intensely moving and bold look at an almost unbearable predicament. In fact, despite the absence of generic tropes, the adaptation is to all intents and purposes a horror film as we are placed within Alice’s perspective, as she slowly feels part of herself slipping away. She loses her way while jogging on campus; she finds words difficult. Being super smart, it turns out, has masked the condition as she has worked out strategies to best get around the momentary lapses. And even now she does her best to prepare herself for the worst, desperately trying to train her mind and test her memory, and using technology as an ancillary back up to her failing recollections.
However, none of these techniques can afford relief from the chronic disease and, although surrounded by a loving family, she is given the additional nightmare of finding out that her disease is a rare genetic condition which she might have passed on to her children. Julianne Moore is magnificent in the role, keeping true to her character’s discipline and never allowing her to simply become a clothes peg for the disease. Alice has had tragedy in her life prior to the fatal diagnosis – her mother and sister died in a car crash when she was a teenager – and she is still capable of humour and joy. Her relationships with her husband, son and her daughters are distinct. Anna (Kate Bosworth) is the successful driven woman who most resembles her mother, but she is also awkward and unsympathetic in the face of the disease. Playing the more independent Lydia, Kirsten Stewart puts in another great performance to go beside Camp X-Ray and Clouds of Sils Maria in getting her away from the Twilight franchise that made her famous.
Alice’s attempts to control Lydia’s life don’t stop because of the disease and we can feel her limits as her mother even as Lydia turns out to be the one family member who is willing to engage honestly and directly with her mother’s condition. Alice’s husband John by contrast fails totally, constantly working, impatient with his wife’s failing ability and eager to move away for a new job which will provide a welcome distraction, but it is credit to the film’s humanity that this failing is not seen as simple callousness, or a lack of love so much as recognition of the enormity of pain in watching someone you love slowly fade away. There are problems with the film. Alice delivers a speech to an Alzheimer’s Association which is … well … a speech, and the sibling rivalry between Anna and Lydia also feels melodramatically contrived. The score by Ilen Kesheri is way too on the nose, with plaintive piano tinkling for sadness and discordant strings for psychic anxiety. However, we are tugged away from the familiar consolation by a stunning performance by Moore and a genuine wish to look at a horrible disease, most of us would rather not think about.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty