Film review: Still Alice

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Still Alice is the kind of film where you leave the cinema with tears streaming down your face and feeling like you have been through a horrible crisis, but also one that makes you that tiny bit happier to be health and to be alive.

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Alice (Julianne Moore) is a distinguished and successful 50-year old linguistics professor with a loving family. But she has problems remembering words and keeps forgetting things. An inevitable consequence of getting older, you might think. So says her impatient husband John (Alec Baldwin), at least. But Alice – not put off by his no-nonsense manner – suspects it’s a tumour and pays a visit to her doctor. The news isn’t good, and she receives a diagnosis of early on-set Alzheimer’s disease.

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But the heartbreak of someone so young being diagnosed with a degenerative illness with no cure doesn’t stop there. This kind of Alzheimer’s disease is hereditary so her children may be affected too; there follows the tough decision about whether they should take the test.

One of the most shocking things about this film is the speed of Alice’s demise. From the beginning, when she forgets words and dinner plans, to half way through the film when she doesn’t recognise her own daughter – it all seems to happen so quickly. And there’s nothing she can do about it. While modern technology – phone apps etc – may help, she won’t be getting better.

There’s no other way to say it, but Still Alice is a depressing watch. This isn’t a typical Hollywood script where a cure is found and everyone gets the happy ever after they deserve; this is real and it is raw. This is all-too apparent when watching the reaction of her family.

Her family – unsurprisingly – struggle to deal with the news. John mostly seems irritated. As a successful professor himself, he’s used to being in control and overcoming challenges, but this irritation verges on uncaring, as if this is a burden on his life. He just doesn’t seem that likeable. Alice’s daughter Anna seems similarly annoyed by the situation; at times it’s like this is getting in the way of her life and her desire to have a baby. Is this really how it would happen? I think the reactions seems a touch cold.

Alice’s daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart) who has moved to LA to pursue her acting career copes much better. This is a role where Stewart’s moody, awkwardness comes into its own and she delivers a stellar performance, as she balances her love for her mum against the desire to make it in Hollywood. Lydia is the only one who is really willing to take care of her mum, which gives Stewart a chance to add more depth to her performance.

As we see the world from Alice’s point of view, it reminds me of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in the way we get inside her head. Not only do we experience just what she is thinking, we also see what she is seeing. This is at times blurry and other times jaunty; it’s a very scary place to be. The first person narrative gives an insight into the way someone who is experiencing this disease is feeling, which is quite a feat as it’s an unimaginable cross to bear. Saying that, this is not a film that dwells on despair, that wails and rants and says ‘why me? Why should this happen to ME?’. It’s just beautifully, subtly done.

Directors: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland
Running Time: 101 minutes
Country: USA
Cast: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth
Rating: ****

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Karen McCandless

Author: Karen McCandless

Karen is an experienced journalist and editor who has worked across B2B and consumer publications, both print and online.