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It’s easy to see why Sony Pictures scooped up Alice from the Toronto Film Festival. There are two key reasons: their names are Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin, and they propel along a simple, snappy, and surprisingly un-soppy film about illness, family, and (of course) love. Moore plays Alice Howland, a linguistics professor diagnosed with early onset familial Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a spoiler the film wants you to know about, encouraging viewers to play MD and pick up the faintest traces of Howland’s memory lapses.
It’s partly due to the intensity of the subject matter that Still Alice feels a little claustrophobic, but the atmosphere also comes from consistently close camera work. Sometimes this is really effective but sometimes all the feels mean we need a bit of breathing space. This isn’t to say the film is overly confronting, rather that it’s often more stylised than it needs to be, especially in the half-hearted flashback scenes.
In making a film to capture the reality of degenerative disease, there’s potential for playing with style if you’re one of those post-classical creatives. Dialogue aside, it’s quite hard to signal an illness with any specificity. Still Alice shows some of Howland’s early episodes of confusion with shallow focus, close ups, and amplified sound: it tells us something is happening for her, but this could be anything from a panic attack to a psychotic episode. The film works best when it keeps it simple: when Howland is verbally expressing what she’s feeling, and when her daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart) gives her space to do so. It really hits all the discussion points on Alzheimer’s that you want it to, without being the streetside guy rattling the collection bucket in your face.
I got a sense from this film that the directors knew what they were about when it came to the subject matter, and Google has since informed me that Richard Glatzer passed away just five days ago after fighting ALS. The other director was his husband, Wash Westmoreland, and this adds a really nice dimension to Still Alice, shifting the film’s focus from the perspective of an individual dealing with illness to a family dealing with illness—in the film’s case, one that’s genetically inherited. It avoids angelic victim syndrome and allows for really nice character arcs as they grow and develop together. Of the eclectic bunch of films in their oeuvre, I’m sure both directors are glad that the reflective, understated Still Alice was Glatzer’s final offering.