None of us like to think about the experience of living with disease, but Alzheimer's in particular seems to make people uneasy - though it's not hard to see why. The distress of being not only a prisoner to genetics, but feeling our mind slip away from us as memories, our awareness, and eventually even the faces of our loved ones fade, likely forever: It's frightening to consider.
The situation seems so nightmarish that a film that attempts to depict the experience with any honesty would by definition have to be a horror film. But there's a fine line separating a sincere (and sincerely frightening) depiction of illness and the latest Lifetime movie of the week. And thanks in large part to a monumentally strong lead performance from Julianne Moore, "Still Alice" stays on the right side of that line.
Moore stars as Alice Howland, a respected professor of linguistics at Columbia University. When she's troubled by instances of what appears to be brief memory loss - a word eludes her while delivering a lecture, she suddenly feels lost and disoriented when out for a run on campus - she makes an appointment to see a neurologist. Though she's barely 50 years old, the doctor diagnoses Alice with early-onset Alzheimer's, a rare and extremely aggressive form of the ultimately debilitating disease.
Being a woman whose identity is so defined by her intellect, Alice finds it especially difficult to accept her diagnosis, and she develops ingenious little systems for herself that allow her to hide the symptoms as long as possible. She's gifted with an expert's understanding of neurology and how people process language, but that blessing also gives her the unfortunate capability to understand exactly what's happening to her as it happens. And the film does an impeccable job conveying exactly how truly frightening that must feel.
Obviously, she does eventually tell her family: first her husband, John (Alec Baldwin), then their son (Hunter Parrish) and two grown daughters, Anna (Kate Bosworth) and Lydia (Kristen Stewart). Married and expecting, Anna has always been the more put-together of the bunch, but she doesn't deal well with her mother's illness. Meanwhile, Lydia, whose decision to forgo schooling in order to pursue being an actress in Los Angeles has long put her at odds with Alice, discovers untapped reservoirs of strength, stepping up when others falter.
Throughout, "Still Alice" avoids painting its protagonist as an angelic, saint-like victim: Alice can be stubborn, and early on we see that she's not above using the disease as an excuse to avoid dinner parties or to get her way during minor marital spats. There's a certain shame she feels in her condition, how it changes her and the way she's seen by those around her. Faced with the constant sense that pieces of her are gradually slipping away, she knows that there will certainly be a point when there will be little of herself left. Still, she remains fiercely determined not to lose sight of her identity, fighting to retain her dignity and continuing to live on her own terms as much as possible.
Moore is characteristically great, giving a performance that ranks among the best of her career. She plays Alice with a restraint that's rare (and quite welcome) to find in this type of picture. Moore justifiably earned an Oscar nomination for her work, and if the buzz from Oscar pundits is to be believed, she'll likely be ascending to the Academy's podium come March.
The casting of Baldwin makes it clear from the get-go that John won't be the typical movie partner whose role is to demonstrate stoic strength while receding into the background. And though Stewart has a fairly a spotty track record as an actress, she gets a chance to prove naysayers (me among them) wrong by delivering a performance of quiet strength that easily matches that of her co-stars.
The film doesn't linger unnecessarily over the messy details of Alzheimer's disease, but keeps us acutely aware of its unyielding progression. With no option but to depict its character's steady decline, there's no real surprise about where the film is headed. Writer-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (adapting the novel by Lisa Genova) give the proceedings an unadorned, unobtrusive style that demonstrates sensitivity without tipping things over into false melodrama (though a few scenes veer dangerously close to feeling like an Alzheimer's PSA). If it doesn't quite reach the sort of stark, devastating power of "Amour" or "Away From Her," it's more than capable of putting audiences though the emotional wringer.