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FILM REVIEW | Still Alice

★★★★★ | Still Alice

Beautiful, pitch-perfect, Sublime

Life is seemingly idyllic for 50-year-old Alice Howland a renowned Professor of Linguistics at Columbia University who is happily married with three grown up children.

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Then suddenly out of the blue she forgets a word or two midway in a tutorial, and then cannot remember the occasional appointment although this hardly registers with her at all. That is until one day out on her usual run around the campus Alice suddenly realises that she doesn’t recognise where she is even though she is literally standing outside her own office building. A subsequent trip to a Neurologist rules out a brain tumour or stroke which had been her worst fears, but further investigation reveals something that she had never even considered: early-onset Alzheimer’s. If that is not bad enough for Alice as she comes to terms with the fact that she will eventually be unable to recognise her own children, she then learns that her disease is hereditary and she may inadvertently pass it on to them too.

Alice takes a reasoned and logical approach to her situation even though filled with rage that she will lose all that she has worked for and achieved in the past 50 years in probably just a matter of months. Whilst still very much aware of her situation in these early stages Alice makes plans for her uncertain future by visiting Special Care Facilities and making contingency plans for when she can no longer answer a series of personal questions about her life, which have now become part of her daily routine. She desperately tries coming to terms with the fact that life, as it had previously existed, is now over and so insists on continuing teaching, until that is she tells all to her Department Head who promptly dismisses from her position. Having a lack of a daily purpose seems to help speed up her degeneration, and being left at home all with just a carer to look after her is difficult for this once extremely active workaholic to come to terms with. Her husband John, a fellow academic is very understanding and completely supportive of all her needs but nevertheless still refuses to take a sabbatical year off to share what will be her last few months of coherence, and he is, in fact, planning to accept a new important job in another State.

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The story based on a novel by neuroscientist Lisa Genova unusually tells the tale from Alice’s point of view instead of solely focusing on the effects her illness has on family and friends. The fact, in this case, it was initially harder to diagnose was, as her doctors point out, due to the fact that intelligent people like Alice are capable of devising elaborate ways to work around their initial symptoms that mask the problem. Whilst writer/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have not shied away from showing the sheer sadness in watching Alice’s life disintegrate in front of her own very eyes, they have rather brilliantly avoided the temptation to milk the situation and let this turn into a weepy melodrama. In fact there are some tender touches of humor that never let us forget that before Alice became a victim, she was a very articulate and witty woman.

The sublime Julianne Moore imbues Alice with a powerful voice in a beautiful pitch-perfect low-key performance that makes it all feel so real. She makes us appreciate that life is simple, not fair, and that you have to appreciate it whilst you are able too. It deservedly won her a long overdue Best Actress Oscar. It was very much her picture, but nevertheless kudos to her fine supporting cast that included Alec Baldwin who delivered a subtle understated performance as her husband John, and Kristen Stewart as her youngest daughter Lydia who refused to give up her own dreaming of acting, but nevertheless became the one family member who would really be there for her all the way.

The story has particular resonance with married couple Westmoreland and Glatzer as the latter has his own debilitating disease after being diagnosed with ALS. The fact that he has chosen to write and direct this exceptionally beautiful movie with his husband shows that he certainly hasn’t given up, a message that is also very important to Alice who refuses to just give in.


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