Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is one very accomplished woman.
Barely 50, and in the prime of her life, she is a fiercely-intelligent, much-admired professor of linguistics at Columbia University in New York, a fitness fanatic, wife to equally-as-accomplished John (Alec Baldwin), and mother of three to Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parrish) and Lydia (Kristen Stewart).
By any measure, Alice had grabbed all the brass rings there are to grab a hold of, and then some.
But these aren’t simply a list of boxes ticked for this charismatic, well-loved woman; they are integral to how she sees herself a person, someone who can wrangle words with consummate ease, debate the merits of scientific theses with her husband with her eyes closed (or while preparing Christmas lunch) and whose intellect is the cornerstone of everything she does.
What happens then when she discovers one day that her mind has forgotten the well-worn path she runs everyday through the heart of a campus she knows intimately? Or that certain words dance and dart with irretrievable glee out of her grasp, only returning with much effort or not all?
What is she to do then when everything that has defined her as a person from an early age, suddenly starts crumbling and dissolving before her with a shocking diagnosis of Early-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease?
If this scenario was unspooling in your average noontime TV disease-of-the-week movie, she would rail with justifiable, if melodramatic, injustice against the unfairness of life, grieve with impassioned brio against the loss of that which has made her and continues to sustain her, and fight, fight, fight against the dying of the light just as the poet Dylan Thomas passionately instructed.
What happens in Still Alice however, one of the most affectingly authentic and heartbreakingly well-acted films to occupy this genre in some time and based on the bestselling book by Lisa Genova, is altogether different.
In the hands of master actor Julianne Moore, who gives vent to Alice’s growing alarm and fear in ways both stoically silent and 3am demons-in-your-mind voluble, the loss of an entire, much-valued identity is told with all the poignant grace and devastating sadness that you would expect.
No hand-wringing histrionics, the backbone of factory-produced disease-of-the-week movies, here; what you get instead is the blisteringly understated though no less passionate, portrayal of a woman disappearing before her eyes one precious syllable, one defining memory at a time.
Moore’s Alice reacts much as anyone would react, fighting back where she can in ways most meaningful to her.
She does what she can to mitigate the losses, writing herself reminders, papering over the tears in the fabric of her life where she can until there are too many visible wounds to be tended to in any meaningful way, and even, with an intent that is both coldly assured, and desperately sad, providing instructions on how to end things should she find herself unable to answer a series of questions about her life.
There is railing of course, and panic and fear but their expression is outweighed by quieter outworkings of her grief, her outage at this turn in her life finding form in facial gestures of confusion, despair, resignation, small battles-of-will with her neurosurgeon, all of them reflecting Alice’s need to fight but also her growing understanding that this is one battle she cannot win, a fatal skirmish from which her intellect, determination and ambition cannot bring her victorious.
This is never more profoundly expressed than when she is taking a tour of an aged care facility that caters specifically to those suffering from Alzheimer’s, the nurse assuming she is there for one of her parents, Alice instead staring her bleak, identity-stripped terrifyingly-near future in the face.
It is a deeply affecting, emotionally-resonant performance, Moore giving stunningly impressive voice to a woman doing what she can to avoid losing all that is precious to her while realising, largely thanks to her professional background that it is, in the end, a losing fight.
Thanks to a sensitively-framed, substantial script by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, who also directed the film, and beautifully-wrought cinematography by Denis Lenoir who uses contrasting blurry and crisp images, close-in shots and wide-panning to reflect the distance travelled by Alice between who she is now, and who she once was and sometimes still is, Still Alice avoids all the traps of the genre, focusing on what the diagnosis means to Alice in small, intimate ways and, of course, how it impacts those closest to her.
Her family react as you might expect in a variety of ways – husband John losing himself in work and new career opportunities as if cleaving tight to the backbone of their shared professional lives will be enough to forestall its inevitable decline while Lydia, in marked contrast to Anna and Tom, tackles the thorny reality of her mother’s condition head on, drawing them closer together and giving Alice rare moments to be totally honest about what she’s feeling.
This though is primarily Alice’s story and while it may sound like an inescapable slough of despond, a maudlin trap from which no light or hope can ever break free, it is in its own quiet, unblinkingly realistic way, freed from big grand dramatic confrontations and emotionally over-wrought narrative signposting- Moore’s departure from her beloved post at Columbia for instance simply happens quietly between scenes – a film that affirms that the important things, like love, somehow survive this annihilation of self (the final scene brings this home in a way that leaves you heartbroken and cheered all at once).
Much like its reminders that we should value every moment and never take anything about ourselves or our life for granted though, Still Alice is always grounded and quietly-spoken, never losing itself in moralising or overplayed lesson teaching, remaining throughout, thanks largely to Moore’s brilliantly nuanced performance, an unflinchingly honest look at what happens when life doesn’t play fair and we are forced to scramble to pick up the pieces till, sadly, there are precious few left to collect.