WRITTEN REVIEW – Still Alice (2015)

Still Alice
Directed by: Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland
Written by: Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland
Starring: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth & Hunter Parrish
Music: Ilan Eshkeri
Certificate: 12A
Release Date: March 6th 2015

In the lead up to ‘Still Alice‘s UK release, Academy Award winner Julianne Moore was a guest on BBC Radio 5 Live’s show “Kermode and Mayo’s Film Reviews” and in her interview she compared dementia and alzheimers today to cancer 50-60 years ago in that it was very rarely talked about in media. It was considered too-serious a topic and something that was often avoided out of politeness. However, for cancer, with its prominence in media and the openness to which people are now willing to talk about it, we’re now at the stage where more people survive cancer then die to it.

Around halfway through ‘Still Alice‘, the lead character, diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimers, tells her husband “I wish I had cancer.”. In the UK alone, an estimated 850,000 people have been diagnosed with a form of dementia with 40,000 people under the age of 65 and there is no known-cure or effective treatment. Maybe in 50-60 years time, the disease will be more commonly talked about so that awareness can be raised and treatments will be more commonplace. But right here, right now, coming out in this cultural climate, we have ‘Still Alice‘, an adaptation of the Lisa Genova novel of the same name, pushing awareness to the forefront. And while ‘Still Alice‘ is an imperfect film, it’s for the above reasons that it’s a very vital and important one.
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Dr. Alice Howland (Moore) is a professor of linguistics at Columbia University and a mother of three. She’s well-off, has a loving family while words and intelligence are her livelihood. However, despite being 50 years old, she is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease which means that her brain will slowly start to deteriorate, causing her to lose her memories, struggle to communicate or cause visual impairment (no two people experience Alzheimer’s the same way). Alice’s state of mind deteriorates over the course of the film and ‘Still Alice‘ follows her over the course of a few years to see the effect that it has on her and her family.

Still Alice‘ doesn’t have much in the way of narrative. By the 20-minute mark, Alice is given her diagnosis and the movie portrays her uncompromising decline. There are no sub-plots or digressions and it’s absolutely Alice’s story. There’s a sense that the set-up of the movie has been perfectly calculated in order to garner as much sympathy as possible from mainstream audiences, in that Alice is a linguistics professor making her Alzheimer’s diagnosis especially ironic, as well as the fact that she’s from a wealthy, upper-class family which supposedly makes it especially sad (See, folks! Alzheimer’s doesn’t hold prejudice based on social status!) but you can’t deny the emotional and human impact such a disease can have.
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Still Alice‘ is very much a movie that is carried by its important subject matter. There is no winning this battle. There’s no 50+ year survival like Stephen Hawking in ‘The Theory of Everything‘ or a potential cure that Alice can receive. In a startlingly short amount of time, Alice is going to lose herself to this disease. It’s not a matter of “if” as it is “when”.

Lisa Genova’s source material may be fictional but it’s based off of real cases and real Alzheimer symptoms and the movie is paced in such a way that the audience bare witness to this progressive disease. It starts off with a few subtle flubs and mistakes in sentences, then Alice starts forgetting aspects of her schedule until she eventually starts forgetting family members and is unable to form sentences.

Julianne Moore is essentially the centre-piece of the movie and it’s easy to see why it was her performance in ‘Still Alice‘ that earned her a long overdue Oscar. She’s incredible in this and disappears into the role with great visual touches that show her downward spiral. It’s a very subdued and natural performance. It’s interesting that her and Eddie Redmayne took home trophy’s this year at the Academy Awards for these two movies as Redmayne won for his physical deterioration portraying an MND-sufferer whereas Moore has won for a mental deterioration. Interestingly enough, co-director/co-writer Richard Glatzer was diagnosed with MND in 2011 and by the time ‘Still Alice‘ started filming he was paralysed and unable to speak, forced to communicate with actors on set with an iPad.
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Technology plays a big part in ‘Still Alice‘ as she uses her phone to take notes, make reminders and records video messages on her MacBook, plays word-puzzle games on her phone (and her word-score starts to falter over the course of the movie) and she frequently Skypes her children who have already left home to pursue lives of their own. However, it’s with the family that I think ‘Still Alice‘ stumbles slightly. The casting of Alec Baldwin, while funny when you consider that this is the 3rd time that he has been married to an Oscar-winner (ex-husband of Meryl Street in ‘It’s Complicated‘, husband to Cate Blanchett who won an Oscar for ‘Blue Jasmine‘ and now Julianne Moore who won for ‘Still Alice‘) I was always very conscious of him being Alec Baldwin as opposed to him portraying a character.

Not to say that Baldwin is bad, but he has a very distinct screen-presence which I think detracts from him being able to play understated roles. But it was refreshing to see a regular husband character who didn’t have a contrived 3rd act abandonment sub-plot which is a cliché in these types of movies. However, the impact his wife’s condition has had on him doesn’t get much time in the spotlight, save for one scene right at the very end and even then it’s very brief. Also, the circumstances surrounding Alice losing her job at the University are never divulged. She has one scene with a professor explaining why her work has suffered over the past semester but then her work-life is never mentioned again.
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Also brief is the screen-time for two of their children played by Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish who don’t get much to do, which is disappointing because when all of the family are together, their different reactions to what is happening creates a great and realistic dynamic – for example, all three children react very differently to the news of their mother’s diagnosis. The family member, outside of Alice, with the most amount of screen-time and development is her youngest daughter, Lydia, played by Kristen Stewart who is trying to break into the theatre industry as a female actor.

I think the jury is still out on whether or not Stewart is a good actor as pretty much everything she has done before ‘Still Alice‘ hasn’t been very good, but here in ‘Still Alice‘ she’s genuinely holding her own against the rest of the cast members and she does a very good job in the movie portraying a daughter at odds with her mother but still trying to make her happy. Alice wants Lydia to go to college so she’ll have options in case her acting doesn’t work out and she seems to be trying to guilt-trip her daughter using her condition by saying “Before I go”. Alice is already resigned to her fate and, in one of the best sequences of the film, even plans to reach her future self through a video in order to plan her own suicide attempt once she loses herself to Alzheimer’s.
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It’s an interesting touch in the movie where all the characters start to refer to Alice in the past tense more and more as the movie goes on and there’s a lot of understated dialogue. When Alice visits a dementia-ward, the nurse showing her around casually mentions Alice’s parents, assuming that because she’s only 50 that she’s visiting the ward on their behalf. The nurse is unaware that Alice is the one who has been diagnosed. It’s just a single, off-hand line of dialogue, but it goes a long way to showing the public’s perception of the disease. Pretty much everyone receiving treatment in the ward is over the age of 70 and there’s only one man there as Alzheimer’s is more common amongst females. Towards the end, Alice’s family members have conversations concerning her life and refer to her in the 3rd person despite Alice being in the room, though unable to understand what they’re saying.

Not only is Alice no longer in control of her own life, she doesn’t even know it anymore.

It’s subtle touches like this that make ‘Still Alice‘ a socially important movie when it comes to informing people today what Alzheimer’s is like and it’s possibly the best example of putting audience members in the head space of someone who is losing their mind to the disease in media to date. This is also told through the production with a clever use of the camera’s depth of field, with the best example being used early on when Alice steps in and out of a static frame out-of-focus to show her disorientation. The music itself, while it seems to be very limited in terms of character themes and tracks, is cleverly utilised as the main theme of the movie mainly consists of strings to create a beautiful melody when Alice is herself. But when the disease takes over and she has an episode, the theme plays again but with out-of-tune instruments to show the distortion of her own mind.
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I feel like the movie could have done a lot more to show Alice’s family reacting to the condition as ‘Still Alice‘ is very much a one-women show, almost to a fault, since a big plot-point to the movie is that the type of Alzheimer’s that Alice has is genetic and her children have a 50/50 chance of inheriting it. One of her children is also about to start a family of their own but we don’t spend much time with them which felt like a missed opportunity.

But what ‘Still Alice‘ gets right, it gets incredibly right and the casting of the incredible Julianne Moore propels the movie into “must-see” status. It’s smartly directed with great performances all around and it confidently and uncompromisingly portrays a terrible disease that shows no remorse. If the movie’s private screenings in Dementia wards across the world are any indication, this movie will be considered mandatory viewing for those working in the health-care sector.
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However, Richard Glatzer, who directed and wrote ‘Still Alice‘ with his husband Wash Westmoreland, passed away this past week to MND. Thankfully, he was able to see his film get released and be met with such acclaim and an Academy Award for its lead female actor. Glatzer and his husband have left behind a great legacy and a must-see movie. ‘Still Alice‘ is not fun and it’s not an entertaining viewing experience (although it does end on a hopeful note with a final sequence that’s just…perfect), but I think it’s an important and much-needed look at a taboo subject not enough people are talking about.

I give ‘Still Alice‘ 4 stars out of 5.

Sources and statistics in this review were provided by the Alzheimer’s Society website. Please consider donating.

Posted In: 2015 Reviews Current Reviews Reviews

Author: Trilbee

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Posted: 15th Mar 15