Given her remarkable body of work, which takes in the stellar likes of Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), Far From Heaven (2002), Children of Men (2006), A Single Man (2009) and Maps to the Stars (2014), it’s somewhat unbelievable that Julianne Moore has only been nominated for a total of five Oscars, and has previously always left empty handed. That she should have finally won this year for Still Alice is more than deserved, not just as recognition for that truly exceptional career but also one of her most astonishing performances to date. She is nothing short of perfect here, anchoring an extremely emotional subject – the shattering impact of dementia – with subtlety and grace.
Her Alice Howland is an ambitious, motivated recent 50-year old whose ordered life implodes when she is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. That she was a hugely successful linguistics professor makes the slow-burning physical impact of this illness particularly cruel; that hers is a hereditary strain which she has a high chance of passing on to one of her three children makes it even more overwhelming. As Alice’s world begins to collapse around her, she and her family struggle to find adequate ways in which to cope with the gradual disappearance of the woman they love – and, for her kids, the knowledge that they might be witnessing their own possible future play out.
Adapted by writer/directors Wash Westmorland and husband Richard Glatzer (who, sadly, passed away following his own fight with ALS) from the novel by Lisa Genova, Still Alice is courageous in its unflinching look at the fallout from this brutal disease. Alice’s distress and, often, humiliation at the hands of the diminishing power she has over her own mind are acutely felt, and always coloured by the knowledge that there can be no redemption, no possible happy ending to bring a sense of worth to this overwhelming turmoil.
Despite the tragedy of Alice’s fate, her story is, crucially, restrained in its telling. There is no reliance on clichéd emotional shorthand – no cloying score, no flashbacks to happier times, save the odd family photo – to convey Alice’s fundamental loss of self. Instead, her decline is charted in a series of small moments; an increasing reliance on her smartphone for information, a repeated introduction to someone she met just moments before and, in one particularly moving scene, the forgetting of the location of the family bathroom. These intimate moments depict the relentless march of fate far more powerfully than the wailing and gnashing of melodrama and, at their heart, Moore is an unwavering presence. As Alice manages her condition in the same methodical manner she has handled all other aspects of her life, Moore evolves from multi-tasking professional to an unrecognisable shell. It’s a character arc as impressive and mesmerising as it is utterly devastating.
Unsurprisingly, given Moore’s absolute luminescence, other characters are cast somewhat in shadow. Yet this is perfectly fitting; while her husband and most of her kids seem to shrink away from the enormity of her diagnosis, Alice takes control of her fight as best she can and her personal observations effectively convey the immense personal cost of this illness. Whether in the form of a halting, eloquent speech to a room full of Alzheimer’s sufferers and their families – “I find myself learning the art of losing every day” – or, later, a video message to herself that is shocking in its impact, they are beautifully realised by the screenwriters and, of course, given impeccable life by Moore. It’s hard to imagine another actress doing such justice to this complex role.
Elsewhere, Kate Bosworth is solid in the role of Anna’s eldest Anna, who is planning her first child at the time she discovers she may share her mother’s fate. More striking is Kristen Stewart as Alice’s wayward youngest daughter Lydia, forced to put her own dreams of being an actress on hold to care for a mother who never fully supported her ambitions. Their dynamic is both gentle and fractious, and becomes increasingly interesting as Lydia steps into the role of carer and their roles are effectively reversed. Post-Twilight, Stewart is proving to be an actress of broadening range and undeniable presence, and her blend of post-pubescent rebellion and earnest loyalty is the perfect foil for the more overwrought aspects of her mother’s situation.
Indeed, Lydia is the only one of Alice’s children not to walk on the eggshells of terminal illness, and the only one to ask her mother outright how she feels about her Alzheimer’s. The resulting conversation perfectly encapsulates the ravaging nature of this disease, and is one of the film’s many highlights. Another is Lydia’s final scene reading of a passage from Angels in America to a mostly uncomprehending Alice; the understanding that the concept of love endures even when words may have lost all meaning is a powerful and moving end to Alice’s remarkable journey.
UK Release Date: March 6, 2015