Published on March 11th, 2015 | by Conor Smyth0
There is a deep sense of inevitability to Still Alice, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s Alzheimer’s drama based on Lisa Genova’s novel, a feeling that is only partly down to its heroine’s arc of incurable mental deterioration. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is a clever and accomplished linguistic professor whose cosy professional and family life unravels when she is diagnosed with an on-set variation of the disease, one which takes effect with a cruel swiftness. Early on she loses her way in a conference speech, but as the rot accelerates she begins to forget names, appointments, memories and, in the film’s principal, on-the-nose irony, whole chunks of her cherished vocabulary.
Glossy and heartfelt, Still Alice efficiently hits much of the marks to be expected of an Academy-approved malady movie with an A-lister like Moore as its headliner. The film’s release on these shores marks the culmination of a line of award-courting pictures centred on disability, difference and suffering – The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, Cake, Wild. Two Days, One Night – all of which walk the line between Oscarbait formula and stylistic or narrative innovation. Still Alice is maybe the most by-the-numbers of the bunch, a safe and mannered production peppered with moments of tremendous sadness. Moore always brings the goods, but she lifts an otherwise unremarkable film.
Still Alice gains its power from loss and from its anticipation. The statistically rare earliness of Alice’s disease – the film opens at her fiftieth birthday dinner – and her academic intelligence only intensifies the tragedy of the situation: she is able to grasp with grim accuracy the enormity of the looming catastrophe. In its own extreme way the film is also about the unravelling of privilege. Alice is the very picture of the comfortable, high-achieving middle classes, with her regular runs around campus, multi-vitamin supplements, stock-photo family and gorgeous beachfront home. She reacts to her diagnosis with an incredulous shellshock, and as the knowledge sinks in, flashes of wide-eyed terror break through the calm. Alzheimer’s is associated most strongly with the loss of memory, but Still Alice deserves credit for demonstrating the wider impact of the condition or, at the very least, how the erosion of memory is really the erosion of everything. Like ice sheets suffering under a punishing sun, great big shards of her former self are breaking off and sinking into the black.
The sense of loss is powerful, but it is also unfocused and uncomplicated. Trickier subjects are raised but fudged. The fallout of the disease on Alice’s husband (Alec Baldwin) and children is never addressed beyond initial, broad terms: one daughter, the type-A Anna (Kate Bosworth) skirts around the issue nervously and timidly while the other, the scruffier, wayward Lydia (Kristen Stewart), attempts to engage and ask honest questions. The situation offers a chance for a renewed parental connection, but what about the son? Anna, who is trying to conceive children via IVF, tests positive for the disease’s genetic marker, but there’s no fallout of guilt or culpability. The film’s reluctance to get at emotionally thornier territory is mirrored by its style, with the score’s minor keys and strings and various shots of Alice on a beach designed to convey a sense of melancholic reflection. It looks and sounds good, but it keeps the character’s struggle at a distance. You can’t help but wish for a bit of the hysteric rawness Moore brought to Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars. Something to pierce the sheen. Conor Smyth