It is somewhat surprising that the only awards Still Alice has attracted are for Best Actress. Julianne Moore won the Golden Globe, the BAFTA, the Screen Actors Guild and her long-overdue Oscar for her performance as Dr Alice Howland, a linguistics professor who develops Early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Moore’s awards are well-deserved, but it is a disservice to the film to only credit her, as Still Alice is a deeply moving portrayal of a life ravaged by disease. Nominations for Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing and even Directing or Picture would not have been amiss. Indeed, in many ways it is more impressive than a more-lauded film (at least in terms of nominations) of the recent awards season, The Theory of Everything.
Cynically, one could argue that The Theory of Everything attracted greater attention because it focuses on a man dealing with a debilitating condition rather than a woman. Equally cynically although less accusingly, perhaps The Theory of Everything got more attention because its subject is a real person, whereas Still Alice is a fictional story adapted from the novel by Lisa Genova. Regardless of the reasons of the award-givers (which need to be considered in context), for my money Still Alice avoids the problems that I identified in The Theory of Everything. Not least among these is the attention to academia, as the scientific discoveries of Stephen Hawking are little more than background in The Theory of Everything. In Still Alice, the academic environment adds to the sense of loss, as Alice’s deteriorating mind is something she previously developed and which has helped to define her. What do we become when we lose crucial parts of our identity? This is one of the questions that Still Alice explores in detail.
What is most impressive about the film is writer-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland cinematic rendering of the protagonist’s experience. Early in the film, there is a wonderful sequence where Alice goes running and suddenly becomes disorientated. The image loses focus, expressing her confusion and fear, while the camera pans around her so that we also feel disorientated. Later, Alice becomes lost in her own home, the camera remaining with her as she searches in vain for the bathroom she not only knows must be there, but that she knows she should remember. Sequences like this run the risk of being simplistic or even cruel, but Glatzer and Westmoreland avoid this pitfall by never slipping into mawkishness. Nor are there moments of histrionic melodrama, as restraint is a great strength throughout the film. It is telling that the most moving scene (for me at least) is not one of the more flashy sequences but when Alice delivers a speech to an Alzheimer’s support organisation. For much of this scene, the camera rests on her face, Alice’s brittle voice simultaneously expressing her fear and her resolve. This expression continues throughout the film, ensuring that we are not alienated from Alice’s struggle. The film is a bold and affecting portrayal of a life falling apart, all the more heartbreaking because we are there every step of the way.