Still Alice (2015) – Review

Julianne Moore recently won an Oscar for her performance as the eponymous Alice, a woman still within the prime of her life who’s diagnosed with a rare early onset Alzheimer’s disease, in directing/romatic partners Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s film.  Is it a coincidence that both best actor winners at this year’s ceremony – the other; Eddie Redmayne in The Theory Of Everything – were for performances of characters with debilitating diseases; one physical, one mental?  Probably not; there’s just no getting away from the fact that such roles are complete Oscar bait.  On the other hand, just because Moore and Redmayne were basically handed an actor’s golden ticket, there’s also no getting away from the fact that both performances absolutely deserved to win the top awards.

With the terribly sad news of co-writer/director Glatzer recently passing away following a prolonged fight with ALS (which restricted his ability to direct to pointing fingers), Still Alice suddenly has an even greater impact and importance that it already did, serving as a poignant reminder of our own frailty and the impact such diseases can have on so many lives.  Adapted from Lisa Genova’s novel, it’s a powerful, moving and intelligent film for many reasons, yet the real weight derives from Moore’s performance, without which the film wouldn’t be nearly so affecting or, likely, well received.  It’s an exquisite turn as a middle-aged mother and wife battling early onset Alzheimer’s disease, pulling the strings of the audience as her slow descent into this horrible affliction convinces us every step of the way.

As is often the case with the best performances, Moore is so great because of how ostensibly little she does.  Rather than over-dramatize, which would be all too easy, she allows subtlety and nuance to elevate the performance beyond what’s expected, whether it’s waking up her husband (Baldwin) in the middle of the night to break down and share her fears and feelings, or stare listlessly into space as her daughter (Stewart) reads her a story.  Is she listening?  Is she aware at all?  The performance is so complex, so genuine, that we never quite know what’s actually going on within her decaying mind.  More overtly, her physical transformation is striking.  While conspicuously losing make-up as the drama wears on, it’s the way in which she changes her expressions, the way she moves and talks and her hair bedraggles and dries out.  Every inch and moment is utterly convincing.

In a slight departure from the standard narrative arc of this type of film – look again at Redmayne’s The Theory Of Everything as a comparison – Still Alice isn’t interested in crafting an ‘origin’ story for its characters.  The drama begins just as her disease is setting in, and it ends somewhere in the middle.  Nothing is wrapped up, nothing is resolved, characters leave us with tattered and loose ends.  In a way it’s refreshing, and actually rather rewarding, being subjected to a short, powerful character study rather than a long-winded biopic, yet on the other hand the drama occasionally falls flat through a lack of urgency.  While the direction is solid with an understandably compassionate approach, it’s equally a little bit laboured and lacks risks.

Still Alice perhaps isn’t quite as brilliant as some would have you believe, but there is a powerful and compelling film quietly waiting under the tempered surface.  Drawing awareness to a terrible disease is important, but ultimately it’s all about the performances, and, specifically, the way in which we react to and sympathise with Julianne Moore’s Alice.   We do, however, invest ourselves in every character from the very beginning and care about them until the very end, and because everyone involved is so good, it will be hard to find yourself unmoved, even profoundly, on a number of occasions.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

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