Film review – Still Alice

Main Cast

Julianne Moore as Alice Howland

Alec Baldwin as John Howland

Kristen Stewart as Lydia Howland

Kate Bosworth as Anna Howland-Jones

Hunter Parrish as Tom Howland

Shane McRae as Charlie Jones

Stephen Kunken as Benjamin

Directors:  Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland

I am decidedly wary of films which revolve around  disability because they all too often dive into a morass of self-conscious sentimentality.   Just Alice avoids this fate  because of the excellence of Moore’s performance and the often selfish and neglectful  behaviour of her family, although, sadly,  there is a sentimental ending wholly out of keeping with the rest of the film.

Alice (Julianne Moore) is a  professor of linguistics at Columbia University   who  finds herself struggling with her memory and concentration.  At first it is just the odd word or name which escapes her, something that happens to all of us as we get older. But soon she is forgetting appointments and social occasions, finding herself disoriented in familiar surroundings and being unable to lecture coherently.  She meets people then a few minutes later has forgotten that she has met them. Worried, she sees a specialist and finds that she has early onset Alzheimer’s .

From that point onwards Alice stumbles  ever  further  into a world which  is increasingly  both incomprehensible and unmanageable.   At first she devises strategies such as writing three or four words  on a board and then covering it up for a time before trying to remember what she has written. She gives a talk to the Alzheimer’s Society which she is only able to do by highlighting each sentence as she speaks it to tell her what she has already said. She puts questions about people she knows such as their names and relationships on her phone and tries to answer them. But these exercises and stratagems become increasingly redundant as time passes as we watch a personality  shrinking as faculties are remorseless subtracted from her.

The diagnosis adds a further complication: Alice has a form of Alzheimer’s which is hereditary.  She  has three  adult  children, one of whom is pregnant with twins.  Her  eldest daughter, Anna (Kate Bosworth), tests positive for the Alzheimer’s gene;  her unborn twins test negative, as does her doctor son Tom. Alice’s youngest daughter, aspiring actor Lydia (Kristen Stewart) refuses to have the test.

While Alice still has most of  her marbles she tries prepare for  the time when she will not be able to look after herself. Under the pretence that she is looking for a place for her father she visits a retirement home which specialises in dementia cases  to get an idea of what the future will hold and comes away dismayed by what she sees, a host of  people defrocked  of their dignity and purpose.  Perhaps prompted by this dismal future she leaves a message for herself on  her computer  giving her future self instructions  about what to do when she can no longer answer questions such as Who is your eldest daughter?  These instructions consist of telling her where to find  a bottle of  pills (which will kill her if they are all taken in one go) and  to swallow the lot.

As her state worsens Alice forgets the recording giving her the instructions to kill herself, but inadvertently clicks on the computer file containing it when she is already well advanced in the decline of her mental powers. She  makes  several  abortive starts to find the pills because she keeps forgetting the instructions to find them on her way to the pills.  Eventually Alice  finds the bottle,  but just as she is about to take the pills someone returns to the house and the sound of them causes her to spill the pills onto the floor. The  interruption causes her to forget  why she  was holding the pills and her chance of escape from an increasingly undignified existence is lost without her even knowing that it existed.

Alice’s family are not outrageously   unsympathetic , but most of them display a greater concern for their own lives which leads  them to behave selfishly   in the face of   Alice’s growing needs.  Her husband John , a medical research scientist is negotiating a deal with the Mayo Clinic and eventually leaves his wife to take up a post a couple of hundred miles away,   the elder daughter Anna  is preoccupied with her pregnancy and  the  youngest daughter Lydia   displays the selfishness  and lack of patience of  a moody teenager, although in the end she  returns to look after her mother.

The acting is uniformly good with  Moore unreservedly first rate in her portrayal of someone shrinking from a confident adulthood to something less than a child. Just by her facial expressions she manages to give the impression as the film progresses of a mind becoming less and less functional until at the end there is little left other than vacancy.

It might be objected that by concentrating on a high performing individual the film misrepresents, even in a strange way  glamorises  Alzheimer’s,  because  someone  like Alice seems to have more to lose than most dementia sufferers , her diminishing to be of greater consequence .  This strikes me as a complaint without  substance.  It is true that the vast majority of Alzheimer’s patients will be people without any special intellectual distinction and perhaps the classic patient will be someone who is poor  with little education, but  there are plenty of  people in Alice’s situation, Iris Murdock being  a recent famous example.  Alice is not an anomaly  in the world of Alzheimer’s.

If the film has a weaknesses it is the very heavy handed  over egging of the poignancy of Alice’s situation.  Her background story is just too facile,  containing as it does the grand and obvious irony  that someone who knows so much about the workings of language is being stripped of that knowledge  and in the end of language itself . I think it would have been better if she had been an historian. The irony of her position would have still been telling  but more subtle and probably more apt, because she would have been a woman whose life involved knowing a great deal of the past having that knowledge eroded to nothing.

Then there is the making of the disease Alice carries hereditary.  Alzheimer’s can be inherited but the odds in real life are very much against it, with perhaps 5% of cases involving heredity.  By introducing the  chance of the disease being carried by the children the focus is unnecessarily  moved away from Alice’s  plight which is all that really matters here.

But these  are small quibbles  when placed in the context of the general excellence of the film.

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