The Pitch: Moore is less.
The Review: I often have conversations with people regarding my love of horror films, and if any genre is divisive in whether or not people wish to be part of the audience then it would be that one. People ask me why I love horror movies, and some of it is that feeling of safe risk: deep down we know that there isn’t a finger-clawed maniac haunting our dreams or a giant in a hockey mask waiting round the corner to chop us into tiny pieces. What I do find more uncomfortable is that within the real world, the true horror that is the simple passage of time, as each of us inexorably presses forward to a point when we will simply cease to be. For me, the greatest fear in that is the possibility of losing one’s sense of self on the downward march towards infirmity, and conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s represent the pinnacle of that fear, the risk that we may become slowly and painfully unable to function and in the process become an increasing burden on friends and family.
The story of Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) brings that fear into sharp focus, as we experience life through her eyes from the point when her memory starts to fail her in the subtlest of ways to such time as her mental faculties have become completely withdrawn. Howland is a linguistics professor and so already has a keener insight than most into the inner workings of the mind, but when hers begins to fail at a young enough age for the doctors to invoke the words “early onset” even she seems unprepared for the effects that her mind’s disintegration will have on her, her husband (Alec Baldwin) and her grown-up children (Kristin Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish). While trying to maintain a quality of life as best she can, Howland also puts into place plans to attempt to control her destiny once rational thought has begun to elude her, but the uncertainty of her illness has a greater effect than even she can foresee.
This feels a very personal film for writer / director pair Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, even before you consider that Glatzer’s life was ended while the Best Actress Oscar was barely on Julianne Moore’s mantlepiece. Glatzer succumbed to another debilitating condition in the form of ALS or motor neurone disease which he endured during the production of the film. Whether despite this or because of it, Still Alice for the large part steers clear of mawkishness and sentimentality, and it as its best when allowing you to absorb the impact of Howland’s disintegration in more subtle ways. Many scenes initially feel edited together strangely, but you soon come to realise that we are witnessing the story through Howland’s eyes and these lapses become symptomatic of her condition. Even so, the film wouldn’t retain the power it does without Moore’s devastating performance at its heart, one which deserves all of its recent accolades and which is the dramatic core of the film to a huge extent. All of Moore’s previous Oscar nominations came over a decade ago and while I think it would be unfair to call this film a renaissance for her career, it’s still a timely reminder that she remains one of the best actresses of her generation and the film would probably have sunk without trace without her. Even so, one grandstanding speech late on feels slightly at odds with everything else happening.
Consequently, as Moore’s character loses her grip on normal functioning so the story slightly loses its grip on many of the other narrative threads weaving out from her story. The best of these subplots concern Moore’s relationship with her younger daughter, and Kristin Stewart gets a chance us to remind us of her range after all those years of blankly wandering through Twilight and Snow White films. Sadly few of the other supporting characters get a look in, and both husband Baldwin and elder daughter Bosworth’s stories feel critically underdeveloped, not least when it’s revealed that Bosworth has tested positive for the same hereditary condition as her mother. I can’t speak from personal experience for how well the film actually captures the family experience of suffering through Alzheimer’s but it certainly doesn’t feel false. However the lack of histrionics doesn’t always serve the film’s best interests and you may find yourself frustrated that the family’s trauma becomes largely sidelined in favour of Moore’s story. If a film such as this helps to raise awareness of the horrible reality faced by people blighted by such afflictions then so much the better, but it’s Julianne Moore and her alone which really bring Still Alice to life and make it worth your time.
Why see it at the cinema: Seeing the film on a big screen helps you to allow the film to capture your full attention; consequently the rug pulls when you realise time is passing and you’ve become unaware feel all the more powerful.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for infrequent strong language and moderate sex references.
My cinema experience: I’d originally planned to see White God at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse on a Friday evening, but some unanticipated roadworks put half an hour on my journey. Thankfully the helpfulness of the staff when I arrived at the cinema late managed to sort out a replacement film, so I saw Still Alice in its place.
The end of the film took a few people by surprise, so there was more than a certain amount of chatter in the foyer afterwards. As a people watcher I love to grab snippets of this as people walk past, and the general consensus seems to be that this is Moore’s film. Can’t disagree with that.
The Score: 7/10
The Review: Whenever awards season rolls around, the trend in more recent years has been towards at least one movie which may as well have been called “For Your Consideration”. The likes of Little Miss Sunshine and Juno, not to mention almost the entire output of Wes Anderson, seem to have a slot reserved for Oscar contention, into which this year’s offering will slot. So this year’s award magnet seems to be The Kids Are All Right, which has dipped into the bin of indie script ideas that produced dysfunctional family (Sunshine) and teenage pregnancy (Juno) and has now pulled out lesbian parents.
Often, the indie of the year will be an opportunity to finally recognise an older actor (Alan Arkin) or to give an up and coming their big break (Ellen Page). This year almost feels like an attempt to do both; Julianne Moore and Annette Bening have seven Oscar nominations between them and both get roles to get their teeth into, with both delivering characters that sit well in comparison with their previously nominated performances. Mark Ruffalo, one time MTV award nominee and soon to be third choice Hulk, might feel a little put out at being described as up and coming but his star is certainly on the rise, and it’s actually Ruffalo who gives the most rounded and likeable central performance, but is most likely to get lost in the more crowded male award categories come next year.
The narrative itself is also a little uncomfortable in places; a reference to straight actors in gay roles early on in proceedings couldn’t be more knowing or self-referential if Julianne Moore turned to camera and winked, and that’s not the only occasion on which the film is guilty of having its cake and trying to eat it. The actors invest plenty of emotional honesty into their performances, it’s just a shame that there is the odd occasion where it all feels a bit forced. Stick with it, though, and eventually the drama feels earned and the good work of the whole cast starts to bear fruit.
In the pantheon of indie Oscar movies, it never reaches the heights of Sunshine or Juno, maybe because it is trying just a little too hard at points. It is generally positive and uplifting rather than cynical about the various forms that modern family life can be found in, and doesn’t judge or preach. As long as you go in with the expectation of excellent actors elevating some decent if unspectacular material to a noticeably higher level but never reaching true greatness, then you shouldn’t go far wrong.
Why see it at the cinema: Cholodenko’s direction isn’t hugely cinematic, but the drama will benefit from having space to breathe once the early self-consciousness is out of the way.
The Score: 8/10