Film Review: Still Alice

Film Review: Still Alice

“I DON'T know why I said that,” says an apologetic Alice at a family gathering to celebrate her 50th birthday.

She smiles in slight embarrassment, having strayed off the conversation topic, but then dinner-table chats do take capricious turns. It’s just one of those silly little things, nothing to worry over.

Thus is the opening scene in Still Alice, a melodrama that will move its viewers to sympathise with its characters and to frown ruefully for self-concern.

Alice, played by Julianne Moore, has Alzheimer’s.

What begins with trivial mental lapses that any of us might recognise — lost train of thought, misplaced car keys — develops into devastating dementia. Random slips like forgetting familiar names gradually transpire to reveal a pattern of cognitive decay.

Incidents which might initially be dismissed as mix-ups for a busy mind alas, for Alice, signal something darker.

Still Alice is jointly directed by Richard Glatzer and the eccentrically-named Wash Westmoreland.

The pair have collaborated before, between them producing movies that use obscure angles to highlight major themes.

The documentary Gay Republicans (2004) exposed the conflicted moral views of modern homosexuals in the reactionary Republican Party.

Echo Park, LA (2006) covered teenage pregnancy in Hispanic-American society. More recently, the overlooked Last of Robin Hood (2013), with Kevin Kline and Dakota Fanning, told the kooky tale of a starstruck young girl’s affair with the ageing Errol Flynn.

While they usually take an indirect journey to arrive at the centre of things, with Still Alice, Glatzer and Westmoreland aim straight at the bullseye. Their film is a surgically piercing portrait of a terrifying disease. Their narrative centres on what might be the key health issue for our times.

So watching the excellent Still Alice stirs both fear and fascination.

To dramatise any narrative world most stories must exaggerate events for effect, yet this movie’s bizarre incidents and plot lines are simply realistic.

Alice is a linguistics professor at Columbia University. It’s a canny move on the filmmakers’ part to connect the central character to language, our most complex characteristic trait.

That Alice should be tied to that which makes us most human adds subtle layers to the film’s intelligence. That she slowly loses this field of human contact sharpens its pathos.

At the age of 50 Alice seems to have a life that’s enviably complete. She has a handsome and sensitive husband (an unusually softened Alec Baldwin), a beautiful daughter about to marry (Kate Bosworth) and a graduate son heading for success (Hunter Parrish).

Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore play a couple struggling with the effects of dementia  Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore play a couple struggling with the effects of dementia

Only her youngest daughter Lydia gives cause for concern, played by a sulky but sassy Kristen Stewart. She has eschewed the steady world of college to pursue an acting career.

But when Alice begins losing her way on her jogging route, misspelling familiar words and faltering in her lectures, something’s awry.

“I can see the words hanging in front of me but I can’t reach them,” she complains. A doctor’s diagnosis confirms her worst fears, leading to disbelief, anguish and anger.

“I feel like my brain is f**king dying and everything I’ve worked for is going.” Her personal torment is thoroughly convincing and compelling.

The story originates from the best-selling book by Lisa Genova, a neuroscientist who self-published the novel in 2007.

It’s not easy for film to portray one character’s sense of inner confinement but currently we have two exceptional examples. That Still Alice overlaps with James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything is a happy coincidence.

But then strong comparisons also hold with Alejandro Amenabar’s The Sea Inside (2004), Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) and even Damien O’Donnell’s commendable Inside I’m Dancing (2004).

Yet where Still Alice develops an added slant to the drama is by illustrating the confused responses of the family.

Unlike other disabilities dementia shows no outer sign of change. To her loved ones Alice still looks like Alice. But they wonder if she can be trusted to safely boil a kettle, or dandle her new-born grandchild.

When Lydia learns Alice has read her private journal, she’s unsure if this is snooping or absent mindedness. Still, the bittersweet irony is not lost that Alice is likely to forget anything she’s read.

One of the movie’s many astute features is its depiction of the tension between family and privacy.

The role won Moore a Best Actress Oscar already and we won’t see a more riveting female performance this year.

Still Alice is in selected cinemas throughout February and on general release from Friday, March 6