And it’s back to “too close for comfort territory”, only this one comes with the worst of catches. It is an Alzheimer’s story, but not the usual that you see around here, old folk exploded by time and memory. No, this is the middle-aged surprise of early onset Alzheimer’s – and tells the story with more grace, modernity and unremitting courtesy than any of the films I’ve seen bar Dotty (2014). And where that beautiful short comes with a short story’s ticks, Still Alice has no surprises in its structure, just the wretched beats of losing yourself as the world – rudely – marches on.
It is the story of a brilliant, kind, bourgeois modern woman – an academic, lecturer, mother and wife – and her dreadful dissolution. Julianne Moore gives a performance that entertains, scares and grips you throughout. She more than earned her Oscar (the 87th), taking Alice Howland from a clever woman defined by her knowledge and joy of language – its development and available games – to a place of rolling panic and the worst kind of daze.
I watched this alone. If it’s in your family, in one of your friends, or in you, I’m reliably informed this will be like looking at your story. So tread carefully. There’s a shock value to this disease getting such a young person. There could be a tacky awfulness about it getting such a beautiful one. But Moore’s performance, and the decision to focus on her central experience rather than the gaggle of perfectly played family members, honestly takes Still Alice to a special place. Old Jack learned from this film.
So. What is it like to travel down Alzheimer Boulevard? It begins intermittently, with dashes of getting lost in old familiar places. Moore loses her place in lectures and gets lost on a jog. Kudos to the cinematography – the push and pull of focus plays out as though the state of Moore’s brain controls the camera. It progresses through tests with a neurologist (Stephen Kunken as Doctor Benjamin gives good medico) – teasing us as Moore increasingly strains for answers the audience surely knows. And swings into the humiliation and terrors of disorientation, confusion and shame (Moore forgets where the toilet is in the Howlands’ beach-house). Before the inevitable daze predominates.
Moore is supported by a cast wrenched into the fear by knowing this form of Alzheimer’s is hereditary. Unaffected husband Alec Baldwin (John) is properly supportive but ultimately tortured by his wife’s decline; Kate Bosworth (Anna) is the daughter who knows and faces pregnancy; Hunter Parrish (Tom) is the son who watches, open-hearted, his Mum’s struggle to explain her condition at an Alzheimer’s Society lecture; and Kristen Stewart (Lydia) is the daughter with acting dreams who – this hurt to watch – receives compliments from Alice after a show…only Alice has forgotten their relationship. It’s for a moment, but, oh…youch. Stewart’s absorption of that moment is terrific. The stellar cast – pitch perfect, natural, bemused, and all those other emotions that wander these corridors – circle Moore with workmanlike skill.
So. There you go.
A terrifically well-made film, rich in the realities of the disease, the travails of the movie’s makers, and lit up with cinematography and acting choices that educate and entrance. It is not, ultimately, a heavy film to watch, although I’m not sure I’d call it a pleasure.
Be wary if the topic is too close to home for you. Elsewise, jump on in and learn.