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Still Alice is heartbreaking, memorable

by Emilie Berthier January 26, 2015
Still Alice is heartbreaking, memorable

Julianne Moore shines as a professor diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimers

With the 87th Academy Awards less than one month away, a movie like Still Alice’s (2014) release in theatres this week is perfectly timed. The movie’s leading lady, Julianne Moore (Far From Heaven, The Kids Are All Right), is nominated for best actress alongside contenders like Marion Cotillard, Rosamund Pike, Felicity Jones and Reese Witherspoon.

In the movie adaptation of Lisa Genova’s book, Moore plays the role of Alice Howland, a 50-year-old woman diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Her life as a wife, a mother and a well-respected college professor is slowly torn apart from her as words, discussions, plans, faces—and eventually her own self—escape her memory.

Alice desperately tries to remain who she is. As a language expert, it is particularly striking to witness her means of communication diminish one word at a time. “Sometimes, I can see the words hanging in front of me, and I can’t reach them, and I don’t know who I am,” she tells her youngest daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart).

For Alice, it isn’t just an issue of vocabulary. Her intellect is a fundamental part of who she is, and she had always been defined by it. If she loses this aspect of herself, who will she become? She is ashamed of her condition; she explains that people don’t understand it and tells her husband in a moment of anguish, “I wish I had cancer.”

Through it all, an important message is delivered. As Alice puts it, though one’s life may be shorter than anticipated, what matters is that it is filled with moments of joy, which she still experiences with her family. People with Alzheimer’s should not be treated as though they are suffering, but rather as though they are “struggling to stay connected to who [they once were].”

Richard Glatzer, who directed the film with his partner Wash Westmoreland, was diagnosed with ALS in 2011, only a few months before they were approached with this project. Perhaps this personal experience has influenced his way of portraying, and directing, how degenerative diseases affect people’s lives.

This candour is without a doubt nourished by Moore’s performance, which is impeccable—it is no surprise that she is vying for an Oscar for this role. She portrays Alice with sensitivity, in her character’s determination as well as in her growing vulnerabilities.

As for Stewart, her acting potential may have been underestimated in the past. She gives the best performance of all the supporting cast, with a somewhat bigger role than her on-screen siblings Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish, who nevertheless have touching moments. Alec Baldwin is unremarkable as Alice’s husband, John Howland.

Still Alice is a touching, tear-jerking movie which brilliantly demonstrates how Alzheimer’s disease affects human beings’ most fundamental gifts: individuality and autonomy.

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