Still Alice Review
One of the downsides to films premiering in Australia months after their releases in the United States is the unavoidable awards buzz. Julianne Moore has been lauded for months now for her portrayal of Alzheimer’s sufferer, Alice Howland in the film adaptation of Still Alice (Lisa Genova’s best-selling novel). Moore has received a slew of awards and nominations for her performance so my expectations were already high. I watched the film expecting to see an “Oscar-worthy performance” but what I saw instead was a woman not much older than my own mother grappling with a debilitating disease and struggling with the inevitable pain of losing herself. It felt real, Alice felt real.
Dr Alice Howland is a remarkable woman; a linguistics professor at Columbia University who has received countless accolades for her work in her field, all whilst maintaining a strong relationship with her husband (Alec Baldwin) and raising three incredibly bright children – now adults themselves. The eldest, Anna (Kate Bosworth) is a successful lawyer trying for a baby of her own, son Tom (Hunter Parish) is in med school, while the youngest, Lydia (Kristen Stewart) is trying to make it as an actor – a career choice that begins as a major point of contention between mother and daughter.
The opening scene of the film sees Alice celebrating her fiftieth birthday with her family and the scene that follows shows Alice giving a well-rehearsed speech in California to a room full of students and academics. Immediately we are introduced to the two things most precious to Alice; her family and her sharp mind.
However, during her speech, Alice inexplicably forgets the word ‘lexicon’. Although a seemingly minor detail a person could easy forget, this is the first sign (for both Alice and the audience) that her mind in faltering. Later, she is back in New York, running through the Columbia campus when she has a near panic attack because she suddenly has no idea how to get home. As these memory lapses compound, Alice begins seeing a neurologist and by the end of the first act of the film, Alice has her diagnosis; early-onset Alzheimer’s. Even worse, she is given a 50/50 chance of passing the disease on to her children.
I found Still Alice to be a very difficult film to watch, in that there is no hope of a happy ending, much like the disease Alice is diagnosed with. I had begun reading Lisa Genova’s novel several months ago but couldn’t continue because a little too harrowing, I felt too close to it. I assumed watching events unfold on screen would be easier, less personal than being directly in her mindset. But no, I sobbed my way through the film as well. Co-writers and co-directors, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, make sure that as an audience, we sympathise with the heart-wrenching toll it takes on the Howland family, and feel the full brunt of Alice’s frustration, confusion, sadness and shame.
What I really loved was Alice’s pragmatic approach to her disease, she gives herself a series of questions to answer and then instructions for her future self on what to do when she can no longer answer them. Although she knows fighting Alzheimer’s is a futile endeavour, she refuses to let her mind go easily.
I previously said that there is no hope of a good outcome for this film, but there is hope. In a beautifully acted scene by Julianne Moore, Alice gives a raw, moving speech at the Alzheimer’s Association. At this point, she must follow along her written words with a highlighter to ensure that she doesn’t repeat herself and forget her place. She fearlessly bears herself to the audience, “Please do not think I am suffering, I am not suffering. I am struggling, struggling to be a part of things, to stay connected to who I once was.” As heartbreaking as it is to witness Alice’s inevitable deterioration, in that moment she demands that no one feel sorry for her.
Still Alice is poignant, wonderfully-acted and at times, absolutely brutal. Stock up on tissues before you watch.
Review by Tegan Lyon