When the winner of this year’s Academy Award for Best Actress was announced, it was the closest to a sure thing in an already highly predictable ceremony. “Julianne Moore”, uttered a bearded Matthew McConaughey, and a standing ovation followed. I hadn’t had a chance to see Still Alice, the film she was winning for yet, but still was rooting for her. She’s been the best actress in Hollywood for years now, and the fact that she hadn’t yet won an Oscar was becoming an increasing embarrassment for the Academy.
As is typically the case, they would have ended up overlooking her best work and eventually given her one of their ‘lifetime achievement’ Oscars the next time she turned in an acceptable lead performance. It’s a recognizable trend most notoriously exemplified by Al “hoo-ha!” Pacino’s win for Scent of a Woman after losing out throughout the seventies and eighties.
On the surface, Still Alice sounds like just that sort of movie too, Moore plays a linguistics professor, who at the start of the film is diagnosed with early onset familial Alzheimer’s disease. Disability is one of those things the Awards types go nuts for, though Alice isn’t based on a real person, but I’m pleased to say that this is not in any way your typical cheesy Hollywood triumph-over-adversity tale. In fact, the film treats Alzheimer’s disease with the bleakness it deserves. This disease is beyond horrible; it will slowly destroy your life and eventually kill you. There is no cure, and it still takes a lot of courage to address this head on in a movie.
Accounting for the film’s acknowledgement of the real predicament of its protagonist, Still Alice does not simply concern itself with increased suffering. It is in some ways, still a hopeful movie. Alice strives to maintain control over her life, utilising technology and organisational tactics in attempts to pre-empt when her brain will fail her. She also seeks to help others who might be stricken with the same condition in the future by taking part in an Alzheimer’s conference, courageously giving a speech there, even though she must use a highlighter to mark every sentence as she says it to stop her from unintentionally repeating them.
This is just one of the many smaller details that the film thinks to include in order to convey a full portrait of Alice’s disease. The few scenes we see of her life before her condition begins worsening set up a multitude of later moments as her life alters. Even the initially glaring product placement serves enough importance to render it entirely forgivable. Still Alice never gives in to false hope however, and Alice is acutely aware of what could happen to her and prepares for the worst from the start.
Returning to my initial point; I needn’t have worried. Moore is phenomenal in the role. I’m not sure I’d call this a career-best turn from her but it’s certainly up there. Unlike the more showy disabled roles (see this year’s Best Actor winner), the brilliance of Moore’s work here lies in its subtler touches. The slight glances she gives to her family members to check if she’s already met the person she’s about to greet, the natural manner she states something that everyone else onscreen, and the audience knows she’s already said, and that one of the film’s most devastating moments comes from a silent zoom out on her after she forgets where a door is. Her Oscar was more than deserved.
Her family and their relationships with her and each other are also a powerful aspect to the story. She has three adult children, two of which (Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish) have successful careers, while the youngest (Kristen Stewart) is a less fortunate aspiring actress. The dynamic among them, particularly the more hostile one between Bosworth and Stewart, is both honest and believable. Their presence and that of Alice’s husband (an understated Alec Baldwin) is also key in conveying the affects her condition has on those who love her. Again, there is no corny romanticism on display, they are all intelligent enough to know what’s at stake, and a particularly poignant subplot involves Alice asking her husband to turn down an enticing job offer as it will require him to move away from her. His relatable conflict stems from both his and our knowledge that his life is going to continue beyond hers. The film also doesn’t shy away from the fact that this disease is genetic, meaning any one of her children could also have it.
At first, Still Alice looks to be filmed by co-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland in a rather unremarkable fashion. Early scenes in the doctor’s office consist mainly of static close ups on Moore’s face as she’s interviewed, and the initially nice piano-based theme tune quickly becomes overused. However later moments contrast these well, Perhaps the flat nature of the earlier scenes were intended to mirror Alice’s then-cosy lifestyle? More visual flair is utilised to reflect Alice’s worsening condition; the camera rotates around her with the entire background out of focus when she forgets where she is while jogging, a case of ice-cream-toppings becomes a colourful yet unintelligible blur.
It’s worth noting that director Richard Glatzer was himself suffering from a terminal disease when filming Still Alice and died shortly after its release, and his apparent desire portray such a condition unflinchingly, yet with honesty and hope emerges. From the first act I was wondering exactly how this film was going to conclude, yet it sticks to its guns and avoids sentimental cliché to the end. When the moment comes, it’s perfect from a story-telling point-of-view, and sincerely heart-breaking.