Still Alice is, as a portrayal of Alzheimer's disease, almost perfect. As a film, it sadly falls just short of such perfection.
Still Alice is a hard film to watch. It doesn’t so much show you what Alzheimer’s is as it does make you feel it. It is a film that you will remember after you’ve seen it, a film full of excellence. However, it never quite manages to marry all of its separately fantastic elements into a cohesive whole. As the credits roll, something seems off.
Starring Julianne Moore as the eponymous Dr. Alice Howland, the story is that of a woman who is suddenly and unexpectedly diagnosed with a brutally aggressive form of Alzheimer’s disease. We follow Alice as she starts to lose her memory and her faculties, and her family as they watch, helpless from the side-lines.
All of the actors give superb performances, particularly Alec Baldwin, who plays Alice’s husband, and (dare I say it) Kristen Stewart. In fact, Stewart does so well – her scenes with Moore coming off as so natural and real and subtly impactful – that a criticism of the film may even be that she is underused. The undeniable star, however, is Julianne Moore. Her performance is unquestionably the best of the year, and she more than deserves her Academy Award. She inhabits Alice like a second skin, there is never a moment in the film where you are watching Julianne Moore rather than Alice Howland, and the shifts in her portrayal as the story moves on and the Alzheimer’s progresses are probably the most powerful moments of the film. There are several moments, several scenes, where the film stops, and everything hinges on Moore’s performance alone to convey huge amounts of emotion and (lack of) understanding, and each time she rises spectacularly to the challenge.
Beyond the acting, though, Still Alice is a well-made film, superb in its portrayal of Alice and her disease. The music, though at times a bit overbearing, has a discordancy, an unsettling tone that rises and swells during the moments where Alice (and us, the audience) is blindsided by her increasing memory-loss. The camera drifts and tilts uncertainly, its focus becoming shallow so that the screen is reduced to nothing but Moore’s terrified, bewildered face and a blurred, unknowable background, and we stop being spectators and get to feel the unsettling uncertainty that, for Alzheimer’s, is a constant reality.
The problem with the film, though, is not its craft – it is probably one of the best portrayals of this particular brand of suffering ever made. The problem is something intangible. Something that cannot be pointed out at first glance and that doesn’t have a simple solution. It’s a niggling thought at the back of your mind that what you just watched was good but not great. If Still Alice had been a documentary, it would have been incredible – but as a feature film it lacks something, some kind of narrative quality, perhaps. It is not the first film to be like this, nor will it be the last. Still Alice is a film about an issue, and about the portrayal of that issue. As far as this portrayal is concerned, Still Alice is executed about as flawlessly as any film can be. But for a film to be truly amazing, to be among the best films ever made, it needs something else, and whatever that something may be, Still Alice, unfortunately, doesn’t have it.
Still Alice, directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, is distributed by Artificial Eye, Certificate 12A.