DIR/WRI: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland • PRO: James Brown, Emilie Georges, Pamela Koffler, Lex Lutzus • DOP: Denis Lenoir ED: Nicolas Chaudeurge • MUS: Ilan Eshkeri • DES: Tommaso Ortino • CAST: Julianne Moore, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Alec Baldwin, Julianne Moore, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth
During the introduction of one of her lectures, linguistics professor Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is suddenly unable to remember, of all things, the term lexicon. Soon she starts to show further problems, she gets lost while she is jogging, she introduces herself to her son’s girlfriend despite the fact that he had already introduced them moments earlier. She becomes worried about these lapses in memory and is soon diagnosed as suffering from an early onset of Alzheimer’s, despite only having recently turned fifty. While she makes attempts to manage her symptoms, her condition soon worsens, leaving her family to try and adjust to her care.
Naturally, all attention for this film will be centred on Julianne Moore’s subtle and studied performance, which leads to the question of whether or not this performance overshadows the film as whole. While it is certainly true that Moore’s performance is in itself a lot better than the film that surrounds it, I believe it would be unfair to dismiss the film along those lines. What the writers/directors Richard Glazer and Wash Westmoreland, adapting the story from a bestselling novel by Lisa Genova, are aiming to do is to depict Alice’s condition from her own point of view and to have more of a focus on how much of an impact the disease has on her life rather than the effect it has on the people around her.
There is a very personal reason why the directors would want to depict Alice’s condition in this way as in 2011 Glazer was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, an incurable disease that weakens the body by wasting the muscles. This fact is the most felt in a scene where Alice delivers a speech at the Alzheimer’s Association where she describes just how awful it feels to lose your memories and to lose control over yourself. The film’s sensitive handling of its subject matter shows this personal reticence. While it does lapse into overt sentimentality at times, it never feels emotively exploitative, as perhaps it could have been, mainly thanks to the director’s understanding of her condition and of Moore’s fantastic lead performance.
While there is much to admire about Glazer and Westmoreland’s approach to the subject matter, there still is the problem that the film is not as good as its main actress. Part of this stems from it visual style, which is quite unremarkable and where the only technique used to signify Alice’s experiences, the use of shallow or out of focus, is gradually dispensed with as the film goes on. This lack of visual imagination offers us no insight on what Alice is going through, making us more reliant on Julianne Moore’s skills to fill in those gaps. The film’s use of language symbolism is a bit on the nose as well, from Alice’s profession to the scrabble like game she plays on her phone.
For all these problems, what makes the film work as well as it does is largely in part down to the stunning central performance by Julianne Moore. While the timeframe that the film explores shows us Alice from when the earliest signs of her disease through her rapid decline, Moore shows us glimpses of the kind of person Alice used to be, which allows us to recognise just how much her mind is deteriorating. It is not a show-off performance full of large gestures and dramatic outbursts, but rather more reliant on subtle movements, both physically and emotionally. The scene that showcases just how convincing Moore is in her character comes when Alice, whose condition at this point has worsened significantly, discovers a video message that she had made while her condition was somewhat manageable on her laptop. The difference between these two versions of Alice, one with some sense of control while the other is meek and confused, is extraordinary, showing Moore’s talent, building the character but then slowly dismantling it, leaving someone who is recognisable while at the same time completely different from what they where before.
While Moore’s performance makes the film, she does have some great support, most notably from Kristen Stewart as her youngest daughter, a wannabe actress and the only member of the family who attempts to try and understand Alice’s condition rather than cope with it, the respectful approach taken by Glazer and Westmoreland, though understandable, seems only to highlight the film’s flaws rather than its strengths. Still, its intention is undoubtedly sincere, and what it lacks in inventiveness it makes up for in heart.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Still Alice is released 6th March 2015