Fifty-year-old Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) leads a seemingly perfect life, with a happy marriage and three grown children, and a successful career as a renowned linguistics professor. However her life is turned upside down when she starts forgetting words. She receives a devastating diagnosis of Early-Onset Alzheimer's Disease, which will put Alice and her family through the test, as she struggles to remain the woman she once was.

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A dignified story of personal decline

In an age of increased life expectancy, the fear of losing our minds and our memories is a real one. But to suffer the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease (technically, before the age of 65) seems an especially cruel fate, and one which Still Alice examines with a steady and relentless gaze. The film will have you looking for signs of forgetfulness every time you grapple for a lost name or forgotten fact. It’s a quietly horrifying story with no possibility of a happy ending.

In a typically stellar performance, Julianne Moore plays Alice Howland, a world-renowned linguistics professor whose life seems almost too perfect. She’s beautiful, kind and accomplished. She’s happily married to a research physician (Alec Baldwin) and they live in a tasteful New York townhouse with regular visits to their beach haven in Long Island. Their three grown children are similarly high achievers: eldest daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth) is a lawyer; son Tom (Hunter Parrish) is a doctor. The only worry is the youngster, Lydia (Kristen Stewart). She’s refusing to go to college, pursuing instead a ‘crazy’ career as a theatre actress. (Stewart is particularly good here, portraying some touching and difficult mother-daughter interactions.)

Shortly after her 50th birthday, Alice (who clearly had her children young, as well as pursuing a stellar career because she’s such a Type-A achiever) starts to notice worrying signs. She forgets a word during a lecture. She gets lost and disoriented while on her morning jog. Her ordered world – built on her remarkable intellect and memory – begins to crumble in an irony that is noted by everyone, again and again.

"It’s a quietly horrifying story with no possibility of a happy ending"

The film swiftly charts Alice’s rapid decline, from symptoms to diagnosis (scenes in the neurologist’s office are particularly well done, and will have viewers wondering if they’d pass the difficult memory tests) through to living with rapid mental deterioration – though we are spared the full ghastly picture of physical decline.

It’s both fascinating and inspiring to see the stubborn Alice trying every trick in her book to preserve what she has. This includes playing memory games, storing familiar names and facts in her smartphone and making a video instructing her future self how to commit suicide with sleeping pills when the time comes. Though the film glances at the effects of the disease on the rest of the family (especially when the children realise they have a 50 per cent chance of developing it themselves), the focus is firmly on Alice and her interior experience. As she tells a group of Alzheimer’s experts in her last, difficult lecture (delivered with the help of a highlighter pen to cross out every sentence after she’s read it): “I am not suffering. I am struggling to stay connected to who I once was.”

Adapted from neuroscientist Lisa Genova’s 2007 bestselling novel of the same name, and co-directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (Quinceañera, The Last of Robin Hood), there’s something very respectful, straightforward and plain about the storytelling. Without visual flourishes in the cinematography (by Denis Lenoir), and with a predictably melancholy piano and strings score (by Ilan Eshkeri) the narrative hits all the marks you’d expect of a ‘disease of the week’ telemovie. It works perfectly well – and will no doubt elicit tears and resolves to ‘live in the moment’ – yet you can’t help wishing the filmmakers had sometimes taken the story over the top and utilised the full-blown melodrama and horror of the subject. An edgy subplot involving the husband who is itching to get on with his career is a memorable highlight suggesting rich possibilities and God knows Baldwin and Moore would be up to the challenge of some thrilling shrieking and wailing. But this is not that kind of film. It’s sincere, compassionate and well-researched.

Julianne Moore has won a Golden Globe for her performance in Still Alice, and been nominated (for the fifth time) for an Oscar. Perhaps this will be the role she finally wins it for, and if so, we’ll have it confirmed that the Academy has an unhealthy and lazy obsession with disease and disability, because Still Alice is by no means Moore’s best work. Nevertheless, Moore brings dignity and honesty to a script that’s nowhere near as interesting as she deserves it to be, and she’s still worth watching.

 

Watch 'Still Alice'

Monday 4 January, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS on Demand)

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USA, 2014
Genre: Drama
Language: English
Director: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland
Starring: Julianne Moore, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Shane McRae, Alec Baldwin

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