Adaptation Drama

Film Review: Still Alice

January 23, 2015Ben MK

Remember me...

Our memories define who we are — they inform our hopes, influence our dreams and guide our sense of purpose. The notion of losing our memories is a frightening prospect, but it's the reality faced by the millions of people around the world afflicted with Alzheimer's disease. And in Still Alice, writer/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's powerful and poignant film adaptation of neuroscientist-turned-author Lisa Genova's bestselling novel, Julianne Moore plays one such person, a woman struggling to retain her identity and dignity while grappling with her inevitable fate.


Moore plays Alice Howland, a renowned linguistics professor at Columbia University who's only recently celebrated her 50th birthday when she receives the devastating diagnosis that she has early-onset Alzheimer's. The seeds of this gut-wrenching revelation are planted right from the film's very first scene — a dinner out with her neuroscientist husband, John (Alec Baldwin), and their three grown kids, lawyer Anna (Kate Bosworth), doctor Tom (Hunter Parish) and aspiring actress Lydia (Kristen Stewart) — in which Alice mistakenly answers to a comment intended for Anna.

It seems like an innocent enough misunderstanding at the time, but as we soon come to realize, it's only the first of many symptoms of her disease.

Later, she blanks out while in the midst of delivering a lecture to a room full of wide-eyed students. Then, during a early-morning jog through campus, Alice has a momentary lapse of memory that causes her to completely forget where she is. The increasing severity of these episodes prompts her to pay a visit to a neurologist, who runs a battery of MRIs and PET scans on her and concludes that her condition is familial, meaning that her children are almost certain to develop the disease as well.

From that point onward, Alice's mental capacities begin to unravel at an alarming pace, as she starts to forget everyday things like names, words and appointments — even the faces of her own children — with increasing ease. And it's difficult to watch Moore's on-screen degradation and not become emotionally entangled in her character's plight, for her introspective performance — full of nerve-racking vulnerability and raw, heartfelt emotion — excels at driving home the heartbreaking impact of the disease on a person and on their loved ones, often through little more than a vacant gaze or a longing look.

Yes, Still Alice is a genuine tearjerker, heavy on drama and light on humor. In fact, nearly every member of the cast gets the opportunity to let out a good cry on-screen, especially Moore (on more than one occasion). But the film is also far from being flat-out depressing, as we see Alice's outlook on her condition evolve over the course of the story — from self-pity and defeat to one of fierce determinism. For she's fighting not just for herself, but for her family; and they, in turn, are fighting with her.

A speech given by Alice at an Alzheimer's symposium late in the story underscores the film's inherent optimism, no doubt inspired in part by co-director Glatzer's own personal battle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. In it, Alice speaks of struggling with — not suffering from — the experience of losing something everyday, of learning to live in the moment, and of her hopefulness that a cure for Alzheimer's will soon be found, so that her children, and her children's children, won't have to endure the same difficulties she has had to.

Glatzer and Westmoreland interweave a few other narrative threads into the film's fabric, having to do with Alice's precarious yet loving relationship with her youngest daughter, Lydia (Kristen Stewart is a wonderful surprise in the role, by the way), her husband's workaholic tendencies, and her eldest's efforts to start a family of her own. But ultimately, it's Moore's central — and thoroughly grounded — performance that resonates, keeping the film anchored and preventing it from getting carried away by the choppy waves of melodrama.

The Bottom Line It's no surprise that Julianne Moore's role in Still Alice has put her in contention for the Best Actress trophy at the upcoming Academy Awards, for it ranks alongside her other Oscar-nominated turns in films like Far from Heaven and The End of the Affair. As for Glatzer and Westmoreland's adaptation of Genova's novel, it's not the down-and-depressing sob-fest that you might imagine, but rather a poignant and surprisingly inspirational piece of filmmaking; and it's not one that will be easily forgotten once the theater lights go up.  Ben Mk

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