Whilst the eighties was an era largely tolerant of the rather obvious emotive tactics of such films, I fear the more cynical twenty-first century filmgoer will be rather less forgiving with Still Alice.
Julianne Moore plays Alice Howland, a leading linguistics professor at the University of Columbia, happily married to a fellow academic (Baldwin), and mother to three adult children in various stages of reasonable contentment with their lives: lawyer and mother to be Anna (Bosworth), trainee doctor Tom (Parrish), and LA-based aspiring actress Lydia (Stewart).
After a series of minor incidents in which her cognitive and memorial responses seem to her a little below par, Alice undergoes neurological testing which culminates in the revelation that she’s suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease, and that being a familial strain detected in one so young and intellectually exemplary her deterioration is likely to be rapid rather than long-lasting.
The film proceeds to document Alice’s mental decline in relation to how her family variously reacts to and lives with the gradual fading of her mental abilities and distinctive personality, with particular attention to its resonance for her husband, apparently committed to ignoring the long-term ramification of Alice’s illness for as long as possible; and for her youngest daughter Lydia, whose inchoate acting career has always been at odds with Alice’s wish that she attain a college degree.
After a promising start highlighting the dips in Alice’s mental wellbeing against the backdrop of mundane domesticity in a way which brings Amour to mind, Still Alice lapses into the kind of by-the-book sporadic histrionics and soft-edged scenes of cherishing family relationships while the characters all still have the chance that’ll leave you yearning for the uncompromising and unsympathetic rigour of the Haneke film. A combination of overly-sentimental music, the heavy irony of Alice being a linguistics professor slowly losing her self-defining powers of language and communication, and some ploddingly obvious moments of orchestrated empathy, for example Alice’s triumphant speech to a conference of fellow sufferers, conspires to give the overwhelming sense that the affecting response the film is earning from its audience is by and large completely manipulated.
This is all the more disheartening because, even though the film never really manifests the kind of toughness you might hope from a treatment of this material, it does at least treat its subject and characters with tenderness and empathy, and Julianne Moore in particular is her reliably excellent self in the eponymous role: however that’s no less than we’d expect from a woman who is one of the world’s finest screen performers, and if to keep working frequently at her age this one-time champion of maverick directors, complex characters and challenging material has little choice but to take on projects as ordinary as this then it’s a shame indeed, as much for her as for us. At least it’s a better vehicle for her considerable powers than last year’s Don Jon.
Still Alice is ultimately meritorious and considered enough as a drama about a dynamic and intelligent woman’s doomed battle against the engulfing tide of her mental illness to be a moving experience, at least for those willing to forgive it the paint by numbers means with which it has achieved this nonetheless noble end.
Review by Adam Hollingworth