It is a strange turn of events that Still Alice will be remembered as the film that finally bagged Julianne Moore her first Oscar. The performance undoubtedly warrants it but more than anything, and something Moore would surely advocate, it is a film that sheds a bright, poignant and educational light on a terrifyingly cruel disease.
Alice (Moore) is a linguistics professor at Columbia University, a woman at the top of her field. She’s happily married to another academic John (Alec Baldwin) with three children in the shape of Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parish) and aspiring actress Lydia (Kristen Stewart). But giving a lecture one day Alice finds a word slipping from her mind and before long she’s getting lost in an area she knew all too well the day before. It soon transpires that Alice is in the early onset of Alzheimer’s Disease and both her and her family must struggle to come to terms with the devastating reality of what is going to happen to her.
Still Alice is never an easy watch, and nor should it be. What writer directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, and in no small part Moore, have created with Still Alice is a rich portrait of a strong woman robbed of her identity and reduced to a shadow of her former self. It is often grueling, frequently harrowing and always breathtakingly powerful.
There are moments in which the film captures a microscopic idea of what it must be like to experience Alzheimer’s, the camera losing focus, the sound drifting into the distance and isolating us within a world that is both disorientating, alienating yet almost recognisable as our own. As relationships are tested, everyone reacts in their own individual way, the stages of grief ring true and haunting in each character.
At times the characters discuss Alice as if she is not in the room, it’s a frustrating moment that will have you screaming at the screen to not do that and yet it’s near impossible not to understand their point of view. Baldwin’s John in particular struggles to grasp what is happening to his wife and, despite always being sympathetic, often oozes frustration, not at his wife but at the hand they have been dealt. His anger is almost as palpable as Alice’s traumatic descent into oblivion.
Without exception the performances are brilliant. Stewart puts to bed her Twilight days to deliver an understated strength, one of the few family members who engages with Alice on deeply personal level. Bosworth’s eldest sibling is the firm hand trying to guide everyone in the same direction. Baldwin is typically cuddly with a smartly understated heartbreak that echoes throughout and will have you chocking down a lump in the throat.
But the film glows thanks to Moore. So powerful is her performance that come the end you’ll find the mere sight of her gut wrenching. Moore can do the histrionics when called upon, her breakdown one night is one of the most powerful moments on film in the last year, but it is in the quieter moments, the times in which Alice searches her memory so desperately looking for that thing just evading her that you’re pulled completely into her world.
A thunderous and deeply affecting film about the power of identity and a mental illness happy to rob a woman of it, Still Alice will inform, inspire and hopefully accelerate the drive to obliterate this disease.