Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (2014)
I went to a preview of Still Alice at Curzon Chelsea, followed by a Q&A with the film’s star, Julianne Moore. She plays Alice Howland, a Columbia linguistics professor who is diagnosed, shortly after her fiftieth birthday, with early-onset Alzheimer’s. The Curzon event was hosted by Briony Hanson, Director of Film for the British Council, who handled proceedings bossily but competently: thanks partly to Hanson’s choice of opening questions, Julianne Moore had plenty of interest to say. She was attracted to the script of Still Alice, adapted by its two directors from a 2007 novel (of the same name) by Lisa Genova, because it explored Alzheimer’s ‘subjectively’ – that is, from the point of view of the sufferer rather than their carer or others close to them. Moore confirmed that the scenes weren’t filmed chronologically and that the whole movie was shot in the space of a month (a break in her schedule for filming of The Hunger Games (Mockingjay)). She also explained that, in the interval between the launch of Still Alice as a movie project and the start of filming, Richard Glatzer was diagnosed with motor neurone disease (‘ALS’ in the US), which had brought about huge changes for him and his co-director Wash Westmoreland, who is also Glatzer’s life partner. By the time Still Alice went into production, Glatzer was wheelchair-bound and communicating largely through an iPad. Moore mentioned too that work on the screenplay was still going on when filming began and that a key monologue in the movie – a speech delivered by Alice, when the illness has begun to take hold, to a conference of the Alzheimer’s Association – was rewritten by Glatzer at a very late stage.
It’s true that Alice Howland dominates Still Alice to a greater extent than the characters played by Judi Dench in Iris (2001) or Julie Christie in Away From Her (2007) but this isn’t entirely a consequence of the ‘subjective’ viewpoint that attracted Julianne Moore. It’s also because the part of Alice’s husband is weak compared with the role of John Bayley in Iris and of the husband in Away From Her. Both these other two films are stories of a marriage in ways that Still Alice doesn’t try to be but it’s a problem that Alec Baldwin, as John Howland, seems more uncomfortable in the role than John is in coming to terms with his wife’s illness. Even before Alice’s diagnosis and even though she’s meant to be pre-eminent in her scientific field, John appears to be preoccupied with his own work at Columbia, as a research physician. On the day Alice delivers her speech to the Alzheimer’s conference, John is being interviewed for a post at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, a post which he’s offered and is determined to accept. It’s not clear from Baldwin’s playing of him (and he’s hardly convincing as an academic medic) whether John is meant to be a selfish bastard or whether he’s so horrified by what’s happening to his wife that he must somehow escape it. In either case, Glatzer and Westmoreland skate over the professional or personal tensions that may have existed between Alice and John and the difference that her diagnosis makes to these – and this kind of evasion is a besetting fault of the film. What’s happened to Richard Glatzer makes it harder to be unkind about Still Alice but it has to be said that the screenplay suffers from short-term memory loss. Alice’s neurologist (a poor role, well played by Stephen Kunken) believes that her illness is genetically inherited from her late father and advises that her three children be tested for the gene. The elder daughter, Anna (Kate Bosworth), who is pregnant with twins, tests positive. Her voice relays the news to her mother in a phone call and the matter is never mentioned again – even though the test result means that Anna will be afflicted with early-onset Alzheimer’s unless a cure is found in the meantime.
Alice’s son Tom (Hunter Parrish) tests negative for the gene (and, although I missed this, I assume Anna’s twin babies are clear too). The second daughter, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), refuses to be tested – a piece of characteristic non-conformism on her part. While Anna went to law school and Tom to medical school, Lydia wants to be an actress and rejects the idea of getting a higher education qualification as an insurance against failing to achieve her ambition. This makes for a prickly relationship between her and Alice from the start of the story. Their scenes together are, with some of Julianne Moore’s solo moments, the best in the film – not only well acted but well written. Lydia resents particularly what she sees as her mother’s attempts, in the early days after the diagnosis, to use her illness to pursue the long-standing argument between them. When Alice reads through some play scripts in Lydia’s room, she also looks at her daughter’s private notebook and her failing memory gives away that she’s done so. This is one of the few moments when Glatzer and Westmoreland have their protagonist do something other than compel the viewer’s compassion or admiration: Lydia’s justifiable outrage that her mother has invaded her privacy is only increased by Alice’s protests that she ‘didn’t know’ what she was doing. Kristen Stewart expresses both the strength of Lydia’s anger and her remorse at saying harsh things to her stricken mother – a remorse sharpened by Alice’s forgetting what Lydia has actually said. There’s also a strong, shocking moment when the family turn out to see Lydia in a production of Three Sisters and go backstage afterwards: Alice congratulates the actress on her performance without recognising her as her daughter.
Anthony Lane noted in the New Yorker the heavy-handed irony of Alice’s loss of cognitive function and asked, reasonably, whether her Alzheimer’s would have been any less grievous a fate if she’d been a waitress rather than a professor of linguistics. The script doesn’t have a good answer to this question – not, at least, beyond Alice’s doctor’s gloomy news that ‘With familial early-onset, things can go fast – and actually, with people who have a high level of education, things can go faster’. The academic element of the story comes across as phony (and offensive, for the reason Lane suggests) because it’s so superficial. Alice keeps losing her way in lectures but there’s no follow-up to this at Columbia until a ludicrously perfunctory scene in which her head of department reports on a semester’s worth of negative student feedback, she admits the problem, and the head replies with a little speech that amounts to oh-my-God-I’m-so-sorry-we’ll-do-all-we-can-you’re-fired. In the kitchen, during a family lunch, Lydia asks Alice, ‘What’s it like?’ I think this is a question that anyone who’s not (yet) had any very close encounter with Alzheimer’s wants asked. Alice’s response to Lydia is sobering enough but one of the few sustained strengths of Still Alice is its description of Alice’s living with, and inside, her increasingly impaired brain – and in conveying a sense of grim routine. For example, Alice sets up a series of simple questions on her phone – name of daughter, month of her own birthday, and so on – which an alarm prompts her to answer each morning. (You find yourself identifying with Alice in a very immediate way: I kept spelling water backwards, trying to bring to mind the words she wrote on her kitchen white board, repeating the address the neurologist gave her as a memory test …)
A message tagged to the daily questions reads ‘When you can no longer answer these questions go to a folder on your computer labelled “Butterfly”’. Soon after receiving the diagnosis, Alice makes a video recording and saves it in this folder on her laptop – the video to be played to herself in due course gives instructions on how to commit suicide with an overdose of the tablets that she’s secreted in her bedroom. It’s obvious that the time will come when Alice plays the recording; when it does come, the effect is still powerful because the Alice on the video and the Alice watching it are such different people. This is both dramatically effective and makes you realise what Julianne Moore, without seeming to go through stages of decline melodramatically, has achieved. Alice goes upstairs to locate the tablets but has forgotten the instructions by the time she gets there. She repeats the exercise and has the presence of mind, after another failed attempt, to take the laptop with her to the bedroom. This is gripping and Still Alice might have been a considerably more powerful film if Alice had ended her own life at this stage. That she doesn’t is the result of both crummy coincidence (a carer arrives and calls up from downstairs just as Alice is preparing to take the tablets) and Glatzer and Westmoreland’s whole approach to the subject. In the post-film Q&A, Julianne Moore stressed that a message of the movie is that it’s important to live life, and celebrate being able to do so, while you can. In view of Richard Glatzer’s illness and what he and Wash Westmoreland are now facing, it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for their taking this line but the result is a timorously unchallenging movie – as movies about the terminally ill have often tended to be.
There are occasional, strikingly dissonant moments, as when Alice says to her husband that she wishes she had cancer rather than Alzheimer’s. She gets really angry once and wets herself once but Glatzer and Westmoreland mostly pussyfoot around the ravages of Alzheimer’s. The shots of trees to indicate the passage of the seasons and inserts of home movies as memories flickering through Alice’s mind are not only feeble clichés – they seem designed to be anodyne. The fact that nothing more violently upsetting than this happens makes the fake breathtaking moments all the more irritating. The most egregious of these comes when Alice makes her speech to the Alzheimer’s Association and, a few moments in, manages to dislodge her papers from the lectern. Audible gasps – both on screen and in the Curzon Chelsea – as the pages flutter to the floor … Since Alice, as she reads, runs a yellow marker pen through each completed line to guard against repetition, it’s surprising that she hasn’t also stapled her script together but it doesn’t matter, in any case. She picks up the scattered leaves and continues as if nothing had happened. This false alarm does nothing but distract attention from Julianne Moore’s fine delivery of the speech. Alice aptly quotes in it lines from Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’ (‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master’, etc). Knowing that Richard Glatzer wrote this monologue, it’s hard not to think this is what he might want himself to say – hard too not to wonder if the scripts in Lydia’s room include Angels in America because Tony Kushner’s epic means a lot to the film-makers personally: in the movie’s final scene, Lydia speaks to her mother Harper Pitt’s famous last monologue from the play.
While it’s standard practice for a film to be shot out of sequence, being told that was the case here increases your admiration for Julianne Moore. She’s winning just about everything for this performance and that will surely include the Oscar because: (a) Moore is much admired and has been nominated four times previously but hasn’t yet won; (b) the woman she’s playing has a disability/serious illness; (c) this is a part that showcases an actor, allows them to be in extremis almost continuously – or so you assume before seeing Still Alice anyway. There’s no denying that (a) and (b) are clinchers but what’s impressive about Moore here is that she isn’t overpowering from start to finish. (This is the upside of both the evasive tastefulness of the film and Moore’s lack of histrionic energy, which I used to find frustrating.) Perhaps you don’t get – not at least until Alice listens to her old self’s suicide instructions – the vivid sense of an identity being stolen that Julie Christie realises so well in Away from Her but Julianne Moore’s portrait of Alice has remarkable cumulative power. At the start, I wondered if Alice’s intellectual self-confidence was coming across sharply enough. But later on, when you remember how she was before, you recall someone of remarkable, even intimidating self-possession – and this is without reliance on flashbacks (other than the video message). Moore’s acting is both finely judged and resonant.
According to Stephanie Zacharek in the Village Voice, ‘The triumph of Still Alice is that it’s not about an illness; it’s about a person’. This is a good sound-bite but it doesn’t mean much. The same could be said of any number of terminal illness movies. Did anyone think that Camille was about TB rather than Garbo’s Marguerite Gautier, that Love Story was about leukaemia rather than the Ali MacGraw heroine dying of it, that The Fault in Our Stars – just a few months ago – was about terminal thyroid cancer rather than the teenager played by Shailene Woodley? The quality for which Zacharek praises Still Alice isn’t difficult to achieve if, as usually happens, the director soft-pedals some of the gruelling aspects of the disease in question. Including Love Story in that list of examples shows that you don’t even need a strong performance to do the trick. The success of Still Alice (triumph would be overstating it) is down to Julianne Moore, though. Because her portrait of Alice is so textured, she can fool you into thinking the whole film is too.
6 February 2015
 ‘But I saw something only I could see because of my astonishing ability to see such things. Souls were rising, from the earth far below, souls of the dead of people who’d perished from famine, from war, from the plague, and they floated up like skydivers in reverse, limbs all akimbo, wheeling and spinning. And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles and formed a web, a great net of souls. And the souls were three-atom oxygen molecules of the stuff of ozone, and the outer rim absorbed them, and was repaired. Nothing’s lost forever. In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead. At least I think that’s so.’