Still Alice is the last of the big awards season movies to arrive in UK cinemas, and thus comes not just with nominations but wins to advertise it. Specifically, the best actress hat-trick for Julianne Moore, who grinned her unreadably sincere grin from the podium at the Golden Globes, the Baftas and the Oscars, ruining Felicity Jones’s night on each occasion, although Jones is young enough to fight another day.
Moore’s age ought not be an issue in real life, but it’s key to the part she plays in Still Alice, as a super-smart Columbia University linguistics professor who is diagnosed with the rare, early-onset strain of Alzheimer’s disease. Although any incurable, degenerative condition is tragic, one that usually afflicts people over 65 is especially cruel at 50, and if you’re thinking, “Why does Alzheimer’s in the movies always seem to happen to brainy, brilliant, middle-class people?”, it’s explained by the doctor who diagnoses Alice: “With people who have a higher level of education, things can go faster.”
In married writing/directing team Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s otherwise rather coy adaptation of neuroscientist Lisa Genova’s novel, Moore is your reason for watching. The early indicators of Alice’s condition are effectively and chillingly staged, whether it’s losing her thread mid-lecture or forgetting where she is while jogging around campus, and Moore plays them with subtlety and believability, dignity and intelligence.
As per the novel, Alice is the prime focus of the story. Those around her are less fastidiously drawn, and a decent enough cast struggles to bring to life her immediate family. Alec Baldwin – still essentially a great comic actor – has far less to conjure with than Moore as Alice’s research-scientist husband, a rock who tries to maintain a semblance of normality when his wife starts disappearing by disappearing into his own work. As for their adult children – Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish and a mumbling Kristen Stewart – we’re left with mere cutouts.
The bombshell that mom’s Alzheimer’s is hereditary (early-onset tends to be “familial”, with a 50/50 chance of being passed on) is brushed aside in a series of fairly practical exchanges about being tested. One assumes this subplot was trimmed in order that Moore could reclaim centre stage to disintegrate fragrantly and photogenically. It’s not that Still Alice doesn’t take Alzheimer’s seriously – Moore did plenty of research with real sufferers, and when Alice loses control of her bladder, no matter how lovely her Hamptons beach house is, we’re right with her in terms of black despair. (Richard Glatzer is living with ALS, or Motor Neurone Disease, and it would be surprising if his experience hadn’t fed into some of the film’s better moments.)
In truth, Moore almost carries the film beyond TV-movie blandness, but both Sarah Polley’s Away from Her and Michael Haneke’s Amour mined deeper and more surprising material from the familial fallout of mental deterioration.
Still Alice is released in cinemas on Friday 6 March