Julianne Moore is on track to win a best-actress Oscar for her heartbreaking performance in Still Alice, the story of a Columbia University linguistics professor who’s diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and finds herself slipping into the fog of vanishing memory.
If you’re of a certain age, it will be impossible to watch Still Alice without wondering about those little lapses of memory you may from time to time experience, moments of disorientation when you walk into a room and have forgotten exactly what brought you there or the frustration of having to dig through mental files to remember the name of someone you know quite well.
PG-13 for mature thematic material, and brief language including a sexual reference
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
Confusion falling across her face like a sudden shadow, Moore evokes the pain of early-onset Alzheimer’s; i.e., the prospect of losing everything that her character regards as vital to her identity.
Even worse, the character Moore’s playing — Alice Howland — is only 50 when she’s diagnosed with a rare form of Alzheimer’s that’s genetic in origin.
To their credit, directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have not made a disease-of-the-week weepie. They resist any temptation to garnish the story with sentiment, and they bring Alice’s family dynamics into play in the movie’s background.
Alice’s husband (Alec Baldwin) also works at Columbia, where he’s a biological researcher. The couple have a son (Hunter Parrish) who’s attending medical school and two grown daughters (Kate Bosworth and Kristen Stewart).
The Howland offspring must work through their relationships with their mother. They also must decide whether to be tested to determine if any of them has inherited the genetic time bomb that eventually will result in the disease.
The movie’s key relationship involves Alice and her youngest daughter (Stewart), a young woman who has moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as an actress. Alice long has wanted Stewart’s Lydia to attend college, perhaps to enhance the intellectual luster of what appears to be an exceptionally accomplished family.
As developed throughout the movie, the relationship between Lydia and Alice proves honest and touching. Stewart — who has taken more than a few lumps for her work as Bella Swan in the Twilight movies — holds her own as a character trying to chart a path in life while dealing sensitively with her mother’s decline.
None of the issues raised by Still Alice are treated melodramatically. They unfold in the quiet, respectful style such a movie demands.
Glatzer and Westmoreland aren’t interested in vilifying anyone. They respect their characters, paying some attention to the frustrations and needs of each. Only the son is somewhat neglected.
Still, this is Moore’s movie — and she rises to the occasion.
Without underling or italicizing anything, Moore conveys every bit of the torment experienced by a brilliant woman who’s losing her grip. Alice gets lost in the middle of lectures, forgets where she is while jogging and experiences even worse indignities as the disease progresses. She’s watching her life be erased.
You may have read that Glatzer insisted on continuing with the movie, even after being diagnosed with ALS. He obviously was able to bring heightened identification to the project, but in their adaptation of a novel by Lisa Genova, Glatzer and Westmoreland avoid sledgehammer emotional effects. Alzheimer’s is frightening enough on its own.
This is not to say that Still Alice has been turned into an Alzheimer’s horror show. Still Alice takes a well-observed look at the transformation wrought by a terrible disease.
At one point, Alice says that she’d trade her Alzheimer’s for cancer. It’s to both Moore’s and the movie’s credit, that we understand exactly what she means. She knows that she’s saying goodbye to herself. It’s like dying without actually being dead.