The 87th Academy Awards may well have a Best Actor winner and Best Actress winner both portraying persons with debilitating and arduous illnesses. Still Alice (2014) tells the story of brilliant Alice Howland (Julianne Moore), an accomplished linguistics professor at Columbia, happily married to her husband John (Alec Baldwin) with three grown children. Being a master of words, when she starts forgetting words, she suspects something is awry — and she unfortunately is right. She’s diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. But wait, it gets worse: she has a very rare familial form of Alzheimer’s, which means any of her children who have the gene *will* get it. Oof. Chances are that if you’re about to see Still Alice, you more or less know what this film is about, so the experience comes from watching a bright, resourceful woman transform into a shell of a human being, in the span of 101 minutes. Again, oof.
Much like Eddie Redmayne’s role in The Theory of Everything, Julianne Moore scenes were not filmed chronologically, which means she had to switch from one stage of Alzheimer’s to another in the same day. Her knowledge of this woman’s deterioration was so heightened that she was able to find the right stage for each scene, creating what is a heartbreakingly seamless film. Alzheimer’s disease is the cruelest of all diseases, and that despair is featured by Moore’s incredible performance. In many, many instances, a book is usually the better form for a story, but I imagine that one can only go so far in his imagination of a disease like this. It’s profound to the utmost degree to actually see a woman diminish before your very eyes. You see the spark fizzle from her eyes. You see the personality evaporate. You see her presence vanish, as she becomes a ghostly shell of a human being. Only Julianne Moore can achieve such a nuanced and bleak transformation. She is committed 100% and is unyielding — much like the disease she is emulating. Whether it’s from solo scenes where she is speaking to one person or interacting with her family, you literally see Alice disappear into nothing, which is devastating.
The film is well made, using camera dissolves and fades to illustrate Alice’s episodes. While that is something that can be described thoroughly in a book, this way the audience can see her episodes on screen. The music also aides in that respect. The soundtrack is mostly sweeping and melancholic, but when Alice has an episode, the music becomes dissonant and anxious, aurally personifying the panic that Alice is feeling. It’s very affective and even uncomfortable.
Moore is supported prominently by Kristen Stewart, who plays Alice’s daughter Lydia. Lydia is a struggling actor in LA with a history of butting heads with her mother, but she becomes the person who most connects and helps with Alice’s condition. Stewart delivers some of the classic detached twenty-something persona expected from her, but there’s a layer of depth underneath her eyes when she interacts with Moore. While you can see the frustration that Lydia feels sometimes toward her mother, there’s a deeper, thick layer of love that grounds both of them.
I recommend seeing Still Alice only on your best of days, because you may be somewhat functional afterwards. Don’t see it if you’re already sad. Still Alice is a tragic tale whose ending you already know. The experience comes from watching her demise into oblivion and thanking God that your parents are healthy.