I watched this heartbreakingly good film yesterday after reading many great reviews. Based on the bestselling 2007 novel by Lisa Genova, Still Alice tells the story of Alice Newbold, a well respected, 50 year old, linguistics professor at Columbia University. She is happily married to husband, John, (Alec Baldwin) and they have three grown up children, played by Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish. After starting to forget things she seeks medical help, fearing she may have a brain tumour, but is instead diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. She is dealt a double blow when told that the condition is genetic and that she may have passed it onto her children.
The film tracks the rapid progression of the disease and its effect on the whole family. Two of her children take the test to discover whether or not they have the gene (one does, one doesn’t) and the other decides not to find out. Therefore we also see Alice’s deterioration through the eyes of someone who knows this will all happen to them in the future, which adds further poignancy. It is, however, with the child who decides not to know her fate (Kristen Stewart) that Alice becomes closest to and who asks the difficult questions.
This is Alice’s story though, and the film sticks closely to her throughout. In many instances we are made to feel her disorientation and confusion. Early in the film, before her diagnosis, Alice goes running round the college campus but after a while stops suddenly, looking increasingly frightened, the camera panning round and round, the picture blurred, noise intrusive, and coming back to a close up of her panicked face. It is clear she doesn’t know where she is. Later in the film she pops into the house to use the bathroom while her husband waits outside for her. We follow her through the house as she opens doors, goes downstairs, retraces her steps getting increasingly desperate. He comes in to find her and she collapses into tears, admitting she doesn’t know where she is. It is truly upsetting to watch.
We are often unclear as to Alice’s whereabouts and/or how much time has passed since a previous scene, all adding to the feelings of confusion, disorientation and increasing helplessness that we see in Alice. In one stand out scene we see Alice stumble upon a video on her laptop that she made for herself shortly after she was diagnosed. A video meant to be seen when she has reached a point of no return (as she sees it), when she can no longer answer the simple questions she has set herself on her phone. We see her self now watching her more lucid, fresh faced self from a few months ago, smiling quite delightedly and listening intently to the message over and over, unaware of what the instructions really mean. It’s utterly heartbreaking.
Julianne Moore delivers a stunning, measured performance. We see the light slowly drain from her as the disease progresses and she becomes slowly more childlike. She has already won the Best Actress Golden Globe, Critics Choice and Screen Actors Guild Awards this year for the role and is nominated for a BAFTA and Oscar. All of which are very well deserved. While its a difficult film to watch, even moreso if you are someone with direct experience of Alzheimer’s, it is also an incredibly good film with a wonderful central performance that highlights a very difficult subject. Definitely worth watching, but have the tissues to hand.