Starring: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart
Renowned linguistics professor Alice Howland (Moore) starts to forget what should be very basic words and phrases and completely forgetting where she is on a jog. After receiving the devastating diagnosis that she has early-onset Alzheimer’s, Alice, her husband (Baldwin) and three children (Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish), must deal with the harrowing developments of her inevitable decline.
Often at awards season there is a film that blows the competition away in one category by winning it at pretty much every different ceremony while not even getting a nomination in any other categories. In fact, that one category is often leading or supporting actress, which perhaps gives some indication about gender inequality in Hollywood, but that is a debate I will stay well clear of and leave to others. Well the film that does that this year is Still Alice; with Julianne Moore winning every best leading actress award but the film rarely getting even a nomination elsewhere. Though admittedly Still Alice is, as many have pointed out, a good film elevated by a truly great leading performance, I cannot help but feel there is a little more to it than that.
I of course cannot comment on the original novel as I have not read it, but the narrative approach of writer/directors Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland means that the leading performance was always going to eclipse any focus on any other aspects of the film. This is in my view because of the extra demands this approach places on Julianne Moore’s performance as Still Alice is very much told from the point of view of its protagonist. Though this is of course not a new approach, given the subject matter of the film and what the protagonist experiences, this puts such a great pressure on the lead performance that it will inevitably eclipse any other aspects of the film if that said performance is as exceptional as is required.
Well, Julianne Moore’s performance as Alice is pretty much beyond words in terms of describing just how good it is. It is a role where to even slightly overplay any aspects would completely ruin the film’s integrity as a piece of drama. Julianne Moore deals with the extreme pressures of the film’s narrative to produce a performance that makes for captivating, heart braking and often harrowing viewing.
Moore appears in pretty much every scene and it is no accident that her character is a linguistics professor who having a large vocabulary only serves to emphasise her heartbreaking decline. Though this in some ways is admittedly a slightly contrived narrative device it is one of the many effective approaches of the screenplay at delivering what is first and foremost a character study. This film does not claim to be a documentary on the effects of Alzheimer’s (early-onset or otherwise) as Alice herself is diagnosed with a rare type, though of course many scenes will resonate strongly with those who have had direct experience. The film’s characters are all academic bourgeois characters where money is never an issue, even as Alice’s condition deteriorates (not to say any wealth would in any way eradicate the heartache and suffering that this condition can cause) but yet the film makes the bold approach of continuing to depict the effects of the condition on its protagonist solely from her point of view. This is when the script also does play an important part as some of Alice’s descriptions of how she is feeling describe very vividly what she is experiencing; only enhancing the film’s engagement and heartbreak.
However the raw and naturalistic approach that the writer/directors go for does at times make it feel like the film was made using a very rough early draft of a script that with extra work could have gone further and done more. Like the performance, this an extremely challenging balancing act as to over emphasise moments would once again mean the film loses its integrity of course and overall every aspect of the film deals with its subject matter with respect.
Likewise the supporting characters get very little chance to shine; the performances are adequate but the characters get very little coverage and how it affects them and so the script does not give the actors any chance to deliver anymore than solid performances. However this is consistent with the approach of the film as it admirably sticks with being told from predominantly the point of view of Alice, who is of course often oblivious to the pain and heartache experienced by those close to her in the film’s latter stages. To then give extra focus on the other family members would make for a completely different film which if not written or acted impeccably would verge on clichéd melodrama (though Ilan Eshkeri’s melancholic score threatens to do just that at times) and the film would once again lose its integrity.
Still Alice as a piece of narrative drama may be a little rough around the edges and could have certainly done with a few rewrites on the screenplay, but the makers seem to know what they are doing (with Glatzer suffering from ALS during filming I am sure only enhanced this, his recent passing only enhances the poignancy of the film) and by every other aspect of the film being quite raw and less than spectacular it allows the sole focus to be rightfully on the film’s protagonist. The naturalistic and character driven narrative approach (and of course the incredible leading performance form Julianne Moore) does most certainly make Still Alice a deeply engaging and heartbreaking drama made and acted with total integrity. It most certainly should not be underestimated how in the case of Still Alice the feeling of the film having integrity is crucial for it to work as a piece narrative, character-focussed drama.
Though it is most certainly a case of good film-great performance; the intentional protagonist focussed approach of Still Alice, and of course Julianne Moore’s incredible performance, is one of the reasons it is such a deeply engaging and genuinely heartbreaking drama.