There isn’t a film that has left me quite as sombre and sober as Still Alice did. It isn’t that it is gut-wrenchingly tragic, with a huge event having cataclysmic effects or that the events on-screen have necessarily affected my life in any way. It is just so perfectly realised and acted that you can’t help but be moved by what is portrayed.
That is almost entirely down to the amazing performance by Julianne Moore. I always knew her as a stalwart, reliable actress who you could get a fantastic performance from no matter what the material. Here, it is ramped up to another level, with Moore transforming into Alice without having to make any truly physical alterations but doing it all through a look, a reaction or simple silence in some cases.
She plays a sufferer of Early Onset Alzheimer’s. This isn’t a movie about the effects that the disease has on her family, and how they must cope with the deterioration of Alice, although that does play a part – instead it is purely about her struggle and we in turn, are taken through some of those effects.
It starts small, with missing words and a struggling to remember simple, obvious things but slowly the tension and effects are increased. These aren’t spoon-fed either but realised with Moore’s character. She never actively says “I’m lost” or “I can’t remember where the toilet is” but instead we get the cues through the anxiety in her face, the distortion the camera presents as her view or through the desperate, wordless actions as she tries to find her way.
There are other subtle hints to how the condition affects her too. Along with repetition of questions, we also have scenes that feel like days have passed, for both us and Alice, but in fact occurred months ago. Conversations are barely audible from the other side of the room, pieced together as if we were Alice rather than watching her suffer from the disease.
This relies on a subtle, non-dramatic performance from the support cast too. The biggest strength here is Alec Baldwin, who proves that he can tone down the extravagance to play a more quiet, concerned character. It is easy to forget he is Oscar nominated and it is so clear to see why here – going through each step a husband would, from denial, to a form of acceptance and in some cases, selfish realisation.
Add to that polar opposite performances from Kate Boswarth and Kirsten Stewart. One a bitchy, quite ignorant and in some cases selfish sibling while the other a more sympathetic, caring and more affected daughter. They are captured really well without being forced exaggerations of characters.
The drama never feels forced either. The events are never rammed down your throat, urging you to fight back the tears with a quiet piano tune or to gasp in horror in Alice’s disease puts her life in danger. In fact, much to my surprise and appreciation, there were no huge set-pieces that the movie hinged on. It was more effective because the moments of distress were much smaller, no more so than an inconsequential fumbling during a speech that thankfully led to nothing.
It is the subtlety that is this movies success. From beginning to end you are purely watching this disease begin to consume this woman but in small, noticeable steps rather than in huge cataclysmic events. This means we are much more involved, sharing her embarrassment, rage, despair and then finally, a sort of acceptance if there is such a thing, in one of the most stark but effective endings for a film I have seen in a long time.
Overall, Still Alice delivers a clear, effective portrayal of a shocking illness. It invites the audience to share in the experience first-hand, as well as showing the wider effects on the surrounding family. It’s biggest achievement is the performances, from Julianne Moore to Alec Baldwin; these are awards worthy performances but not because they offer powerhouse speeches or huge transformations but because they are so real that the film will leave you speechless up to the final, sombre but fitting ending.
Rating – 5!
(1 – Awful, 2 – Average, 3 – Good, 4 – Great, 5! – Must See)