TIFF 2014: Still Alice Review
Based on a wildly successful book by Lisa Genova, Still Alice is deeply personal for many people. A successful and brilliant linguistics professor is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in this story about the fear and confusion surrounding this disease and how a family pulls together to support the woman they all love. The novel captures what it’s like inside the patient’s own head as she descends into darkness and that and more is captured on screen as directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland expand the scope to include the world around Alice and how this disease affects her friends and family.
Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is a successful and renowned linguistics professor at Columbia University in New York City. What starts as a forgotten word, a lost train of thought, and missed appointments, Alice soon finds her self getting lost on the streets of her neighbourhood and forgetting people’s names. She begins visiting a neurologist and over a series of appointments is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Devastated and scared, she is initially reluctant to tell anyone around her in the hopes that she can improve her condition on her own. Soon though, the symptoms become more difficult for Alice to conceal and her family knows something is wrong. Alice reveals to her three grown children the extent of her condition and encourages them to get tested to see if they are genetic carriers. As the months pass and Alice’s condition worsens, she begins to leave messages to herself for when she can no longer remember about how to no longer be a burden. Her family comes together, often sacrificing their own personal lives, to help take care of her when she can no longer do so on her own.
Julianne delivers a restrained and devastating performance. This role is reminiscent of her controlled and measured work in The Hours and Far From Heaven. She is able to fully embody a character that is losing their mind and we watch as the layers of her life drop out from under her. We see Alice’s frustration and sadness as she relies on her resourcefulness to cope but finally begins to accept the inevitable, and it’s heartbreaking.
The directors were able to employ several cinematic techniques to engage the viewer and draw them into Alice’s mind. These enhance and help to solidify the experiences these characters are going through which allows the audience to fully understand what this sickness does to a person. As the doctor performs memory tests on Alice, we follow along ourselves; long shots slow to come into focus mimic the process her brain goes through to find its way back to lucidity, and time slippages that fool the viewer into the same feelings of confusion.
Additional development of the supporting players could have made this story stronger. Often the characters around Alice, including her own children, felt flat and unlikable. Making them more personable and well-rounded could have strengthened the familial bond and boosting the emotional impact of the film. That being said, several scenes throughout the film were powerful enough to bring a tear to the eye.
The film does have its weaknesses but the work achieved here by Julianne Moore is great and helps raise the film adequately out of mediocrity. It is a faithful adaptation of the source material and fans of the book will likely be pleased with the result.