Selective memory: why does Still Alice pull so many punches?

Clever pacing and Julianne Moore's Oscar-winning performance can't disguise the hedged bets and risks not taken.

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Although Trudie Styler was one of the executive producers of Still Alice, she didn’t wangle a slot on the soundtrack for her musician husband. But that is not the only reason to ask of this film: where is thy Sting? A fine-grained performance by Julianne Moore, rewarded with the Oscar for Best Actress, cannot disguise the bets hedged, the risks not taken. She plays Alice Howland, a linguistics professor in her early fifties, who is delivering a lecture on the acquisition of language when she finds that a word has become suddenly inaccessible. Her brain proposes a mediocre substitute (“word-stock”) for her first choice (“lexicon”). Medical tests later confirm she is suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Alice’s husband, John, refuses initially to believe the diagnosis; but then, he is played by Alec Baldwin, an actor who couldn’t convey serene acceptance of a restaurant bill, let alone a degenerative illness. In a marital mismatch of a kind unseen since viewers of The War Zone were asked to believe that Tilda Swinton had settled down with Ray Winstone, Baldwin and Moore potter tenderly around one another, she like a tiny porcelain figurine that has somehow landed in his blundering, baseball-mitt paws. The disease makes Alice defiant in ways she hasn’t needed to be. Chastised by John for forgetting dinner with friends, she plays the illness card with a calmness that makes us wonder if she missed the meal on purpose.

Their youngest daughter, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), seems mildly relieved that there is an explanation for her mother’s vagueness. But Alice’s time bomb is one that may take out other members of the family: there’s a 50 per cent chance that she has passed the gene to her three adult children.

Authenticity is not in doubt. The film is based on a novel by the neuroscientist Lisa Genova; it was adapted and directed by Richard Glatzer, who suffers from the progressive neurodegenerative disease ALS, and his husband, Wash Westmoreland. But the material hasn’t been properly reimagined for cinema. There are neat images, such as Alice’s face becoming destabilised when seen through raised wine glasses at a family gathering. Mostly, the film-makers resort to familiar visual cues (home movies, old photographs) and prosaic explanations (“I’ve always been defined by my intellect”). The clumsiest scene shows Alice giving a speech at an Alzheimer’s conference. Cutaways to adoring faces in the audience, coupled with an over-reliance on a tinkling piano, betray a lack of faith in Moore’s abilities. Still Alice would be so much stronger if it were shaped as a film rather than a pamphlet with music.

The trailer for Still Alice.

Its greatest asset is Nicolas Chaudeurge’s editing, characterised by unheralded leaps that accelerate Alice’s decline without fanfare. We move swiftly from everyday forgetfulness to glaring domestic anomalies (a bottle of shower gel left in the fridge). Discovering in the kitchen the phone she had mislaid in the previous scene, Alice exclaims: “I was looking for that last night!” John turns to his daughter and whispers: “That was a month ago.” No film could put the audience in the mind of an Alzheimer’s sufferer but our inbuilt assumption that we have access to all the information experiences a significant wobble.

While in command of her faculties, Alice records a message for her future self on her laptop. Beckett is one of the writers whose name is glimpsed among Lydia’s books and this is Krapp’s Last Video Blog with shades of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: she is recording instructions on how to locate the pills that she needs to send herself down the rabbit hole for ever. There is a glancing allusion to assisted suicide when John, looking sorrowfully at his wife in a café, asks: “Do you still want to be here?” The moment is all the more powerful for passing quickly. “I’m not done yet,” she replies, spooning frozen yogurt into her mouth.

That briskness can also resemble evasion; the physical symptoms don’t extend much further than a spot of incontinence. It would be wrong to lump this film in with Beaches and Steel Magnolias, in which a headscarf is shorthand for terminal illness. Still Alice isn’t in that school of disease cinema but nor has it quite entered the big, bad world. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 06 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Islamic is Islamic State?