Still Alice, directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland

Julianne Moore gives a complex, nuanced portrait of a professor confounded and isolated by Alzheimer’s, writes Lucy Bolton

March 5, 2015

Source: Sony Pictures/Rex

Still Alice

Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
Starring Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin
On general release in the UK from 6 March 2015

I wish I had cancer. People wear pink ribbons for you and go on long walks. I wouldn’t have to feel like a social…I can’t remember the word

At the beginning of this film, as Alice (Julianne Moore) celebrates her 50th birthday with her husband John (Alec Baldwin) and three children, the toast he proposes is to “the most beautiful and the most intelligent woman I have ever met in my life”. The painful journey ahead for Alice and the family, as early onset Alzheimer’s disease undermines her intelligence and her beauty, is shown in a way that encompasses every aspect of our worries.

For a viewer who is an academic like Alice, for whom written and spoken words are the tools of her trade, the film is an agonisingly stark depiction of what it is like to undergo the relentless march of cognitive impairment. Any idea that having lively mental faculties might protect you is dismissed by the neurologist, who says that the deterioration can be more acute in people who are highly educated. The self-reassurance that we would be able to end our lives when things got too bad is viciously undercut and shown to be an unreliable get-out.

There have been previous films featuring major female stars bravely losing their faculties in much-lauded, Oscar-nominated, performances, notably Julie Christie in Sarah Polley’s Away from Her (2006) and Judi Dench in Richard Eyre’s Iris (2001). Julianne Moore has been denied an Oscar many times despite truly stellar performances in films such as Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven (2002) and Neil Jordan’s The End of the Affair (1999), but this performance would have been hard to overlook. Receiving her Academy Award for best actress last week, she declared that she was glad to have been able to “shine a light on Alzheimer’s disease”.

This is an accurate description of what the film sets out to do. Alzheimer’s is the most feared fate of our time: an incurable, humiliating nightmare through which we are transformed into a vision of the walking dead, locked in our own heads, unable to think or care for ourselves. It is hard for film to convey loss of mental faculty without cliché or superficiality. In Iris, for example, Murdoch repeats herself, forgets a few words, and before we know it is watching Teletubbies. The depiction of the onset of the cognitive impairment in Still Alice, however, is nuanced and devastating in its relentless course.

Alice is a professor of linguistics at Columbia University. While giving a lecture, she finds herself groping for a word that just won’t come. A flicker of surprise passes over a colleague’s face. In the car after the lecture, Alice remembers that the word was “lexicon”. There is cruel irony in the fact that words are failing the expert on language acquisition. It is also clear how the ability to recall and use words is a fundamental element of Alice’s existence: from texting and playing Words with Friends to reading recipes and making notes.

The film conveys the building horror and panic in Alice as she finds herself unable to remember her jogging route or to recognise her son’s girlfriend. Her initial neurologist’s appointment is to rule out more realistic worries, such as a brain tumour. When these tests come back negative, however, and the problems persist, she shares her fears with her husband, and they receive the diagnosis together. John predictably expresses denial and resistance, but this is swiftly quashed by the certainty of the neurologist. The irresistible nature of the disease is echoed in the film’s merciless progress through its various ramifications. In another resonant chime for the academic spectator, it is poor student evaluations describing her as “confused and confusing” that lead to Alice losing her job. Once her head of department is aware of her diagnosis, he claims that he has no choice but to tell the department and the faculty.

As her doctor predicts in his assessment, Alice is very resourceful. She exercises herself with various memory tests and visits a nursing home to see what lies ahead. She makes plans to end her life when the time comes. This is ingenious and impressive, and we find ourselves comforted by the practicality and reassurance, thinking that we too might do something like that. Yet what the film conveys better than any other is the complexity of an individual’s cognitive life and the solitary nature of her encounter with the disease. Whether she is planning her suicide or waking up to a new day, finding on her wrist a bracelet with the words “Memory Impaired”, Alice becomes increasingly isolated.

As her world shrinks physically, it seems the dangers around her become greater. The sight and sound of her fiercely chopping tough butternut squash with a large glinting knife, or the rampant bubbling of boiling water as she attempts to make tea by herself, conjure danger in the familiarity of her own kitchen. Finding a bottle of shampoo in the fridge and forgetting a dinner date with her husband are less visceral depictions, but the film doesn’t flinch from showing her wet herself because she cannot remember where the toilet is. Although John is a loving and caring husband, the proximity of his head to her sodden pants as he follows her back up the stairs drives home that he is having to face the chipping-away of his “most beautiful, most intelligent” wife.

Alice is aware of the stigma surrounding her disease. “I wish I had cancer,” she remarks. “People wear pink ribbons for you and go on long walks. I wouldn’t have to feel like a social…I can’t remember the word.” Not only is this disease incurable – so there’s no battle to be fought – it is perceived as a declaration of the end of personhood, even the end of the world.

This is where Still Alice challenges preconceptions about the disease and shines a light on aspects of it that are not normally given coverage. Whereas daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth) is clinical and less sympathetic, the other daughter, struggling actress Lydia (Kristen Stewart), is happy to devote time to Alice, sharing poems, ideas and affection. Alice and Lydia have a row, but the next day Alice can’t remember what it was about. Lydia talks to Alice about how it feels to have the disease, genuinely caring about the answer, and Alice’s description is raw and frank.

Alice addresses a meeting of the Alzheimer’s Association. Giving a speech in which she confronts the perception that patients become ridiculous, she points out: “This is not who we are: this is our disease.” She states that she still has moments of pure joy each day, and that “I am not suffering; I am struggling.” She is trying, she explains, to “master the art of losing”. Acknowledging that the public lectern is her forum, she says: “This is like my old ambitious self.”

This is the film’s brave agenda. As the credits roll, and the words “Still Alice” appear as shadows in the background, we are compelled to accept that Alice is still alive and still struggling. Overall, the film succeeds in making Alice’s predicament relatable. There are exceptional things about her situation, such as wealth, high achievement and the disease’s early onset, but there are also very ordinary aspects, such as bickering children with different abilities to cope. Moore’s intelligent and honest performance captures the perplexed commitment of a person trying to perform a simple task that confounds them, such as tying a shoelace.

When John asks, “Do you still want to be here?”, Alice responds, “I’m not done yet.” The film invites us to read this in two ways: she hasn’t finished her ice cream, and she isn’t ready to give up on life. Still Alice is a challenging and intelligent film, without much sentiment, and only once does it dip its toes into the mawkish. Alice’s – and Moore’s – call for research into a cure can only enhance a culture of attention to Alzheimer’s.

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Reader's comments (1)

Referencing the film "Still Alice", a critical part of the book was completely omitted, i.e., that Alice was enrolled in a blind clinical study in which half the participants were given placebo and the other half given an important new Alzheimer's drug. At the film's end, while Alice is in her final stages, a stunning news article reported excellent results in the population receiving the new drug. For me, this was the final and ironic blow, and the omission of it in the movie really disappointed me.

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