At the Oscars last month, one category above all others was a racing certainty. Julianne Moore was odds-on favourite to win the best actress award – and she did so, accepting with her usual grace and charm.
Seeing her in Still Alice, playing a formidable New York linguistics professor - happy, affluent, high-achieving and a supportive mother and wife. But after she starts forgetting words during her lectures, and then finds herself alarmingly disoriented while out jogging, she takes a neurology test which indicates early-onset Alzheimer’s.
Thus from an early point in the film, we watch this charismatic, well-adjusted academic start a gradual slide which we know can only go in one direction.
Her family are a generally supportive bunch. Her husband John (Alec Baldwin) is loving, if somewhat bumptious, while Anna and Tom (Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish), two of her three adult children, join Alice for her 50th birthday party at a Manhattan restaurant. The absentee at the feast is her other daughter, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), doggedly pursuing an acting career in Los Angeles, overriding her mother’s wish that she should go to college. Alice and Lydia meet soon after the birthday party, and discuss their differences in tetchy but affectionate terms.
Still, the bulk of the story concerns Alice’s gradual decline. Her students notice her memory lapses during lectures, and lodge a complaint which leads to her dismissal. She researches her condition while she still has the capacity to do so, and leaves a video for herself with instructions for a painless suicide. Her family’s distress peaks during a harrowing summer at the beach.
Throughout Still Alice, I found myself thinking what an awful film this might have been. One could imagine a parallel treatment, a syrupy sentimental TV movie, heavy on the melodrama, with a melancholy soundtrack to remind viewers what they should be feeling at any given moment.
Instead, there’s a tough honesty to the film that overcomes such fears. The main narrative is linear by necessity, but the script (by co-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland) avoids the traps of cliché and easily-summoned emotion.
Still Alice is adapted from the 2007 novel of the same name by Lisa Genova, a book club favourite in its day. One could argue that the author’s decision to make Alice an academic linguist is a little pat – she is, after all, prodigiously adept with words, precisely the currency she becomes increasingly unable to summon. But for the most part, this device seems thoughtful rather than laboured.
And then, of course, there’s the glory of the two central performances – Moore’s obviously, but also Kristen Stewart’s as the rebellious Lydia. The scenes with these two actresses together are the most spiky and memorable of all. Lydia, of course, is a dramatically crucial character, as Alice’s condition is potentially hereditary.
Still, it’s Moore you remember, brilliantly portraying a woman being gradually stripped of her essence and fighting nobly to retain what she can of her diminished self.