Adapted for cinema audiences from the novel by neuroscientist Lisa Genova, Still Alice follows the detrimental series of events, in which a 50-year-old linguistics professor faces early onset Alzheimer’s. Our guest reviewer, Richard Hoare takes a look at how the acting and direction combine to translate this delicate topic from page to screen.
Poor Julianne Moore. For years she has suffered the same fate as Paul Giamatti in that she has been touched by “that girl” syndrome. Her filmography is extensive, yet she has arguably never had a stand-out leading role to cement her on-screen legacy. The closest she came was in 2002, receiving critical acclaim for her role in Far From Heaven. However, she also turned in a great performance in The Hours and consequently received an Academy Award nomination for the ‘Best Actress in a Leading Role’ and ‘Best Actress in a Supporting Role’ categories. One could argue that the votes for each respective film may have cancelled each other out and she was beaten to the post by her co-star in The Hours, Nicole Kidman.
Also receiving unsuccessful Academy Award nods for her performances in Boogie Nights and The End of the Affair, Moore could be forgiven for thinking herself a bridesmaid amongst a host of brides. However, 2015 was Moore’s year, and she won an Academy Award for her leading role in this heartbreaking story of an academic who is diagnosed with early onset familial Alzheimer’s disease.
We see Alice (Moore) at the beginning of the film as linguistics professor, successful in her field and author of a crucial textbook used worldwide. However, during one lecture, Alice struggles to remember a word and later becomes lost on a run through campus. She sees a neurologist in secret and, after being subjected to a number of tests, is diagnosed with her condition; rare for a person of her age.
She breaks the news to her family and they are, of course, devastated. Her husband John, played by Alec Baldwin, seems supportive and distant at the same time, completely at a loss to know how to cope with what is happening to his wife. Baldwin uses this role to continue his acting renaissance of recent years, perfectly capturing the emotional turbulence of a man struggling to come to terms with the psychological loss of a partner who still remains physically by his side. Alice’s older daughter, Ruth (Kate Bosworth), learns that she also carries the gene of the disease and is told by doctors that there is 100% chance of her contracting the disease. Ruth is initially more understanding of the situation than her younger sister Lydia (Kristen Stewart), who refuses to get tested for the gene as she prefers not to know. As Alice declines, we see Lydia slowly start to realise the gravity of the situation. Kristen Stewart is tough to watch in the role, as she portrays a slightly more angst-ridden version of Bella, her character in the Twilight franchise, and doesn’t seem to make the most of the complexities of the character or the story.
However, this film belongs to Julianne Moore. Not once does the audience have to find it difficult to support Alice, even when she acts irrationally. For anybody who has experienced the unimaginable truth of Alzheimer’s disease in reality, Alice’s story is painful yet important to watch. The sadness of watching a loved one’s mental decline is obviously sped up for storytelling purposes, and so months pass in mere seconds and we are often left confused as to the timeline, much as Alice herself is shown to be. We see Alice trying to take control of her own fate yet ultimately being let down by her own mind. Moore gives us everything she has got in her emotional arsenal, leaving us as helpless as Alice and her family to watch events unfold before our eyes.