Movie Review: “Still Alice” (2014)
by Alan F. Zundel
Based on the novel of the same name, “Still Alice” is a moving family drama about a fifty-year old woman struggling with the rapid progression of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
The emotional heart of the drama rests upon the changing relationship between Alice, a college professor who soon must leave her work and professional identity behind, and Lydia, her young adult daughter trying to establish a career as an actress. Sensitive performances by Julianne Moore and Kristen Stewart carry this weight with skill and grace.
The film quickly introduces Alice’s happy family life in a birthday celebration with her husband John, daughter Anna, Anna’s husband Charlie, and son Tom, a medical resident, then moves into Alice’s world as an accomplished professor of psychology specializing in linguistics.
Hints of cracks in this successful life come in small moments of misinterpreted conversation, forgetting a word during a lecture, and a strained conversation with Lydia while visiting Los Angeles. The cracks open wider when Alice has a moment of confusion and panic while jogging across the campus where she has worked for many years.
The diagnosis comes shortly after but sinks in only when Alice reluctantly reveals what she has been experiencing to her husband. Alec Baldwin turns in a strong supporting performance as John, a man who loves his wife dearly but finds it hard to adapt as her condition deteriorates.
It is Lydia, as the only family member skilled in communicating at a level deeper than words, who proves capable of accompanying her mother through Alice’s lonely descent into a realm where her reliance on intellect and language rapidly fails her.
Director/screenwriters Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland attempt to capture something of the novel’s ability to show Alice’s mind from the inside, using blurred focus and careful framing of shots, but I found this to be a distracting reminder of the presence of a camera.
They would have been better advised to simply rely on the abilities of their lead actress. Julianne Moore not only gives a pitch-perfect portrayal of the outward changes Alice undergoes, but through subtle facial expressions effectively conveys the crumbling inner world she is trapped in.
The writer/directors show better instincts their decision emphasize Alice and Lydia’s relationship as the key to indicating what Alice has lost and what remains of her. Kristen Stewart ably maintains the realism of scenes which call for her to observe and react to Moore’s passage through a challenging character transition.
Alec Baldwin manages to lend a steady presence to a key role which gives him relatively little to work with, while Kate Bosworth and the other supporting players do fine in creating the picture of a family that is not always as strong as it would like to believe it is.
You are unlikely to gain much new insight into Alzheimer’s disease from this movie, but as a family drama it will bring on the tears and stir your heart. Moore and Stewart’s understated performances raise the film a decisive step above the typical drama of a family dealing with a devastating disease. For that I recommend it.