by Lee Purvey
Alice Howland is a woman who seemingly has it all. Played by Julianne Moore with a consummate proficiency surely amplified by our own knowledge of the actress’ formidable résumé, Alice is a successful linguistics professor at Columbia University, the author of a widely used textbook in her field and a coveted guest lecturer. In addition to her professional accolades, Alice is happily married to another academic named John (played by an unspectacular but well-cast Alec Baldwin), with whom she has three grown children. She’s funny, warmly self-deprecating, incredibly sharp, and possessing of an unpretentious beauty that belies Moore’s movie star status.
Directors: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland
Producers: James Brown, Pamela Koffler, Lex Lutzus
Writers: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland, Lisa Genova (novel)
Cinematographer: Denis Lenoir
Editor: Nicolas Chaudeurge
Music: Ilan Eshkeri
Cast: Julianne Moore, Kate Bosworth, Shane McRae, Hunter Parrish, Alec Baldwin, Seth Gilliam, Kristen Stewart, Stephen Kunken, Erin Drake, Daniel Gerroll, Quincy Tyler Bernstine
Premiere: September 8, 2014 – Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: December 5, 2014
US Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
When we meet Alice, however, it is just as this (perhaps improbably) prosperous life starts to crumble. Within minutes of the film’s opening, she experiences the first of countless instances of mental lapse, which soon begin to increase in degree and frequency. Considering the buzz surrounding Moore’s performance, it’s hard to imagine someone watching this film without prior knowledge of its basic premise. Either way, co-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (who previously collaborated on The Last of Robin Hood, Quinceañera, and The Fluffer) decline to leave the viewer in suspense for very long: after only a few ominous hints, Alice is formally diagnosed with a rare genetic form of early-onset Alzheimer’s.
Based on the 2007 debut novel by Harvard neuroscientist Lisa Genova, Still Alice bears the unique structure of an illness drama told through the eyes of someone increasingly unable to understand or articulate her own condition. In spite of--or perhaps really because of--this fundamental limitation, Glatzer and Westmoreland’s film is a deeply personal one, obsessed with the details of the disease’s progression and its victim’s evolving responses, both practical and emotional.
To convey such an immersive and exceptional experience, the filmmakers--while sticking to a generally chronological storyline--craft a cinematic style that deteriorates in coherence alongside Alice’s neurological decline. Veteran cinematographer Denis Lenoir (Righteous Kill, 88 Minutes) provides a visual mode that functionally, if a little obviously, mirrors Alice’s internal mental state. In an early scene, Alice becomes lost on a run through campus, her surroundings fading to an opaque blur as the camera whirls around her, focused intently on the expression of bewildered panic on her face. Soon thereafter, a doctor’s visit is conveyed in a single static take, Alice’s uncertainty and discomfort becoming increasingly evident as the seconds tick off under the camera’s unfaltering gaze. Throughout the film’s final, painful chapter--in which Alice is incapable of engaging with the world around her through anything more than brief, instinctive interjections--Lenoir keeps the camera ever so slightly out of focus, Alice’s world rendered in a haze one can’t blink away. Composer Ilan Eshkeri’s work on the score functions similarly, running a static humming dread only occasionally punctuated by tragic catharsis.
Yet these compositional elements can only do so much, in and of themselves no more than the skeleton of a story entirely dependent on the emotional heart provided by its victim and her experience. A solid performance from Kristen Stewart (Alice’s daughter, Lydia, the black sheep of the family as an aspiring actress and her mother’s most consistent and challenging ally during her illness) notwithstanding, Still Alice is basically Moore’s show and the veteran actress more than rises to the occasion.
Moore evokes Alice’s personal deterioration with a crushingly poignant specificity, dwelling on simple, authentic moments instead of the more obvious tragic grandstanding one frequently associates with disease as portrayed on the silver screen. As the Alzheimer’s becomes increasingly disruptive, Alice develops strategies to combat its influence, scheduling her life around notes and reminders on her cell phone. She continues to teach for as long as she can, until her increasingly erratic performance forces her into retirement. Asked to speak on her illness at an Alzheimer’s convention, she drafts a rigorously scientific paper -- even as she has to highlight its lines to keep from re-reading them at the podium -- before Lydia convinces her to express a more personal message. As she puts it: “I am not suffering, I am struggling.” Watching these defenses, these desperate attempts to hang on to some sense of normalcy and identity being quietly left by the wayside, one after another, is most heartbreaking of all.
In many ways, Still Alice follows a familiar trajectory of dramatized illness: through the first appearance of symptoms, eventual diagnosis, the patient’s resistance, acceptance, and inevitable defeat.
It also encounters some of the same pitfalls. Both Eshkeri’s score and the ceaseless 8-mm-home-movie-ish flashbacks to Alice’s mother and sister, both of whom died in a car accident when she was 18, eventually begin to feel like vapid emotional crutches. Indeed, without any clear thematic line to latch on to, Alice’s story loses energy in a riveting but dramatically draining final act that leaves one wondering what makes this story of unqualified suffering more important than any of the others one might find in our painfully imperfect world.
But as much as it parallels other films, Still Alice’s specific subject -- namely, Alzheimer’s -- finally sets it apart from its peers in the genre. Unlike so many tragedies of terminal illness, Still Alice lacks the catharsis of death. At the same time, it is differentiated from other stories of life-changing illness and disability (My Left Foot, this year’s The Theory of Everything) in that no functional plateau is reached, its protagonist’s ability to transcend her illness rather diminishing over the film to almost nothing. No meaning emerges here other than pain and the best-intentioned efforts of committed people to manage it as well as they can.
Maybe a little over halfway through the film, Alice’s speech marks the one instance where Still Alice really feels like a movie. For a moment, Alice stares down her disease, reflects on it, and voices her pain. Most films would end here. Even as it robs it of easy coherence, what makes Still Alice an effective and audacious work is its decision to keep going.