Still Alice follows the fictional tale of an acclaimed linguistics professor who is diagnosed at the age of 50 with early-onset Alzheimer’s. The disease, depicted from her perspective, is one that has affected my family personally as my grandma just passed away from it. Therefore, I was nervous to see the film, fearing it would hit too close to home, and scared it would butcher Lisa Genova’s outstanding book. But it proved sensitive and accurate in its portrayal of the devastation Alzheimer’s brings. This success, I think, was due to how it never strayed far from the Alzheimer’s Association endorsed book and thanks to Julianne Moore’s beautifully sensitive acting.
In one of her initial check ups with a neurologist, Alice describes her father, an alcoholic, before he passed away, as “incoherent, incontinent”. The audience is taken on a distressing journey in which Alice, too, suffers this fate. From confident intellectual and competent mother, to a confused, haggard shadow of her former self, no aspect of her deterioration is safe from the audience’s tear-ducts. But because she is just middle-aged, the film has been critiqued for fuelling the myth that the disease is only tragic when sufferers are young. I disagree with this. Yes, she’s bright, beautiful and youthful to the extent that she’s not necessarily the usual Alzheimer’s patient (early-onset affects 5% of sufferers), but, it’s a film. It was always going to have poignant circumstances, and these do not detract from the point of it: its realistic, true-to-life depiction of dementia.
The change in Alice wrought by the disease is demonstrated well, through a series of contrasts pre and post-diagnosis. One difference is seen at meal times, from her gracious hosting of Christmas dinner at the film’s beginning, to how she sits quietly at another celebratory family occasion nearer the end. Similarly, her cool, collected guest lecturer appearance in the opening scenes of the movie contrasts with her later speech to the Alzheimer’s Society, in which she is visibly nervous. The most obvious of these contrasts, however, is when late-stage Alice watches herself on a webcam-recorded video. Struggling to comprehend her own instructions (to overdose when her memory loss gets to a certain point), the articulate and groomed woman she watches on screen, seems almost a different person.
That being said, the movie excels in showing that Alzheimer’s, try as it might, cannot extinguish a sufferer’s personality. Alice remains impressively articulate till the end. During her speech for the Alzheimer’s Association she drops her papers and wittily remarks that “I think I’ll try to forget that just happened”. She’s passionate when she declares “I know I’m alive, I have people I love dearly”. It is little wonder these words form the movie’s most touching scene, one in which Alice describes the devastation that Alzheimer’s causes, simply and without self-indulgence (“We become ridiculous, incapable, comic”).
This is particularly heart-wrenching as Alice and her husband John (Alec Baldwin) place a priority on education throughout the movie. When her youngest daughter Lydia asks how the disease feels, Alice answers that “I’ve always been so defined by my intellect… now I don’t know what I’m going to lose next”. And, certainly, John’s introductory birthday toast to her – “To the most beautiful and the most intelligent” backs up this emphasis. Time and time again, there are clashes over Lydia’s acting aspirations, which Alice disapproves of, lamenting that “There’s so much more you could be doing with your life”. Though somewhat ironic that Lydia wants to be an actor, since she’s played by the characteristically stiff Kristen Stewart, her daughter’s constant presence is a refreshing juxtaposition from her husband’s less than satisfactory attentiveness.
John, too, is an intellect and professor. This means he is able to argue convincingly with the doctor about her diagnosis, but seems unable to show the same emotional know-how. When Alice’s memory loss and worries get in the way of their dinner party, his irritated utterance “She’s the chair of my department for crying out loud” speaks volumes. This attitude is something he proves unable to drop. After Alice’s Alzheimer’s speech high, we are abruptly transported to a glum scene in which he attempts to uproot her from their familiar New York base, to Minnesota, for a job opportunity. Appropriately, it’s raining. This pathetic fallacy conveys the depressing state of affairs whereby his work is his priority, so she is powerless. And the symbolism comparing harsh, depressing weather to this harsh, depressing reality doesn’t stop there. The last line of Lydia’s play reads: “Soon it’ll be winter, the snow will cover everything and I’ll be working, just working”.
Of course, it’s unspeakably tough on them both – they both crave work and a return of the Alice they fondly remember. But his sadness about the situation manifests itself in more distance and less support. Even in later, gentler moments where he helps her get dressed, she requests a particular outfit, he ignores it and suggests another. When she confesses her initial fears to him in the middle of the night he dismisses them as “completely insane” and “complete bullshit”, before finally countering that “whatever happens I’m here”. But was he?
You can judge for yourself in another of the film’s incredibly emotive scenes. In a scene towards the end, Lydia moves from L.A. to back home, in order to look after her weakened mother. John, who is leaving for Minnesota, says goodbye and comments sadly that she is better than he is. Their embrace is fraught with emotion because his words ring true; the realisation is obvious to both of them. It’s also noteworthy because initially Lydia is depicted as the family’s ‘wild child’. The youngest and furthest away, reliant on her family’s income in her stubborn bid to become an actress, every character trait points to being selfish. But, as we get to know her, through countless Skype calls with her Alice and then again here, she proves she is the least. It’s little wonder than John is, at long last, reduced to tears.
For all the emotion that scenes such as these stir up, it’s refreshing that the cinematography is not reliant on gimmicks. Flashbacks are, thankfully, kept to a minimum. And prior to diagnosis, the sense of foreboding that all is not well, is built up successfully. Though when she forgets where she is mid-jog, the blurring doesn’t quite convey her confusion adequately. But, on the whole, the film is beautifully shot and Alice’s articulate nature means that fancy camera effects are rendered unnecessary in portraying the disease’s grip. A selection of gorgeous scenes at the couple’s summer house are adept at highlighting the highs and lows of Alice’s condition. Even though she’s ill, the couple share happy and intimate moments, from walking along the beach together to kissing in the sea. These contrast with the moment in which she confesses in embarrassment that she couldn’t remember where the toilet was (her bladder reacts accordingly). These ups and downs are incredibly important in showing how Alzheimer’s is not just a downward spiral, there are good days and there are bad ones.
Towards the end of the film, the pace slows. This reflects the change in Alice who is gradually struggling more, sleeping more and understanding less. Eventually, she is close to inarticulate but able to comprehend that the play Lydia reads to her is about “love”. This dialogue does not feature in the book, but for cinema, it does form a relatively satisfying closing scene.
But there’s nothing satisfying about Alzheimer’s. Alice succinctly sums up her frustrations with the disease to her husband, saying that “I hate it… I wish I had cancer”. Though he rejects this, she argues that she “Wouldn’t feel so ashamed” if she did. She reminds him that when you have cancer people run for you, they bake, they wear bracelets – “You don’t have to feel like some kind of social (outcast)”. The metaphors invoked in cancer are brave and bold – you’re told that you’re “strong” and that cancer is a “fight”.
Alzheimer’s doesn’t invoke these powerful battle images. It’s a disgustingly slow, absolutely heart-breaking process. I know this from witnessing my grandma transform from the wonderfully gentle and artistic lady I knew, to someone reliant on others for her every need, unable to recognise the devoted husband that had been by her side for 50 years. There are no words to convey this horror, but Julianne Moore did stunningly well in attempting to do so.