Still Alice

2015-02-13 12:14

What it's about:

Alice Howland is a world-renowned linguistics professor and a loving wife and mother of three grown children but when she is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease, her familial bonds are tested as she is forced to confront losing everything that makes her who she is.

What we thought:

There are many genuinely exceptional things about Still Alice but perhaps its greatest triumph is that it manages to present a no-bars-held account of a a life being ripped apart by an awful and inescapably debilitating illness that, as a film and as a piece of storytelling, engrosses, rather than repulses the viewer.

Compare it to the upcoming Jennifer Aniston vehicle, Cake, for example, whose similarly tough subject matter makes for a truly unpleasant viewing experience. Still Alice, on the other hand, may not be what anyone would call a “fun” film – even “enjoyable” and “entertaining” are probably stretching it – but it is a captivating, almost magnetic, character drama that draws you in even as it hits you with one tough emotional punch after one another. It also features a sense of dread that you would be lucky to find in even the best horror films.

The film isn't quite perfect as some of its secondary characters are somewhat under-drawn (though they are portrayed uniformly excellently by the likes of Alec Baldwin, Hunter Paris and, yes, Kristen Stewart who is perfectly cast here) and it brings up the horrible reality that Alice's strand of Alzheimers has a 50/50 chance of being passed down to her children but never actually develops that idea for longer than five minutes. For all of its (relatively minor) flaws though, there is simply no denying the quality of the sharp, almost entirely non-manipulative writing; the empathetic direction or the first-rate performances.

I've been skirting around the issue for a while now but we really can't talk about Still Alice without bringing up its ace in the hole. Julianne Moore has already won a BAFTA and a Golden Globe for her work here and it's not particularly difficult to see why. As Alice, Moore is in literally every single scene in the film and it is her vulnerable and beautifully nuanced performance that holds the whole thing together.

There is that old belief that the best way for an actor to ensure they win loads of awards is to play someone with great physical and/ or mental disabilities – and, to be fair, loads and loads of acting awards have been won this way . It would, however, be utterly wrong to reduce Moore's performance here to little more than awards-bait. Foregoing histrionics almost entirely, Moore instead presents a quietly compelling portrait of a driven, successful and happily married woman who is gradually brought down by something that is utterly out of her control.

There are moments of real triumph, of course, but this is a film about the frailty of our physical, even mental, existence and while Moore brings out all the rage, sadness, defiance and occasional glimmers of seize-the-day buoyancy that comes with her character's condition, it's the sense of helplessness and frustration that comes through most vividly. It's not a showy performance by any means, but it unquestionably shows one of our greatest actresses at the absolute top of her craft.

It's the sort of role, in fact, that threatens to overshadow everything else about the film but, though some critics have written it off as “televisual” or “nothing special”, Still Alice is a much more impressive piece of work than its harsher critics would suggest. Yes, it is pretty much all about Moore's performance but since the film is very much about her character's experiences, told entirely from her point of view, it's entirely fitting that that should be so.

Further, just because there's nothing about the technical filmmaking that really stands up and demands attention that only means that the film's sure footing, solid storytelling and properly measured emotionalism shines through all the more brightly.

Like I said, Still Alice isn't flawless but its lead performance is and that proves to be more than enough to raise everything to the level of a surprise must-see film that's a whole lot more watchable than its tough subject matter would suggest.

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