Alice Howland has always prided herself on her intelligence and her command of language – two traits which had been instrumental to her appointment as a linguistics professor at Columbia. Her husband, John, is an equally brilliant academic at the University, and their three grown children are settling very well into adulthood. Simply put, the life of Alice Howland seems a success by any measure. However, this charmed existence quickly unravels within the opening moments of the film, as small but significant lapses in memory are revealed to be symptoms of a rare and rapidly worsening condition: early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Very soon, everything that was once firmly in Alice’s grasp – from her eloquence to her idyllic relationship with her husband – starts to evade her.
Alice’s illness manifests most unnervingly when she takes a jog through the campus of Columbia. A routine run – through the woods, past the buildings – turns into a nightmare as Alice loses her bearings completely in a place where she has lived and worked for many years. The camera becomes more and more unfocussed, not unlike the mind of Alice which is also losing its grip on reality. We cut next to a shot of Alice, and the camera stays with Alice as she turns 360 degrees; her figure is kept in focus, but the world beyond is blurry and undefined. Seeing the campus from the perspective of Alice, we are allowed a glimpse of her terror when surroundings that should been as familiar as home – if not more so – become utterly unrecognisable.
In fact, the film is presented almost entirely from the perspective of Alice. This is perfectly fortuitous (or carefully calculated) as it plays to Still Alice’s greatest strength by far: Julianne Moore. She expresses the desperate struggle of the title character who, in the weeks and months during which the film is set, endeavours valiantly to remain “still Alice”.
But it is probably no surprise to any of us that Julianne Moore is wonderful (isn’t she always?). Her fellow costars, so critical in creating the patchwork of Alice’s world, are almost as outstanding. The relatively thankless role of John is sensitively portrayed by Alec Baldwin, whose performance highlights the conflict between John’s devotion to his ailing wife and his awareness of the harsh economic realities which he must also shoulder. Perhaps most unexpected though is Kirsten Stewart’s stellar turn as their daughter and youngest child Lydia. As a struggling actress and the proverbial black sheep of a successful family, Stewart communicates a defiance which we come to realise is strength and quiet wisdom. It is Lydia who becomes her mother’s closest confidante, and it is she that reverses their roles and guides Alice to peace and acceptance.
There’s surely no doubt then that Still Alice is an actors’ movie. While there is, of course, nothing wrong with such films, characterisation must be accompanied by a sound dramatic structure. For just about the majority of the film, the directors Glatzner and Westmoreland succeed in bringing about this marriage which is so essential to all storytelling. Indeed, the most prominent arc of the film is a simple but very engaging one: every day, Alice sets for herself three questions to be answered. Come the day that she no longer remembers these basic and fundamental facts that comprise of her identity, Alice resolves to commit suicide. On her laptop she hides a video instructing her future self of the way in which to end her life. At the back of a drawer is concealed a bottle of pills: she tells future Alice to take them all, lie down on the bed, and go to sleep.
However a cruel twist arises which Alice does not anticipate: by the time she can no longer answer the questions, no longer either does she possess the ability to kill herself. Ultimately, it is unwittingly that Alice stumbles across the video. Twice she tries to follow the instructions obediently, making her way up the stairs to the drawer, only to forget the reason she had made the journey. Her efforts are made all the more poignant by the way in which she is distracted – like a child, she happens upon a trinket, and loses focus on the task at hand. Each time also the shot is shorter, ratcheting up the tension as we will Alice on to accomplish her last wish. On the third excursion, she brings her laptop with her. She goes further than ever before, but as she is poised to swallow the pills, her caretaker arrives home. Her only means of escape falls to the ground in slow-motion, forever lost. The scene ends with a reflection of Alice in a fragmented mirror – like the psyche and the identity of Alice, it is no longer quite whole.
Still Alice builds beautifully to this second act climax, but after this pivotal scene, the film arguably loses much of its power and direction. The pacing is a little uneven – we skip and scamper when things start to really get serious for Alice, and days transform into weeks and months before the bat of an eyelid. The last scene of Still Alice is really rather touching, but again it is largely due to the inherent power and essential humanity of the subject matter, as well as the talent of the performers who bring these qualities to the fore, rather than the arc of the drama which should have been building towards this moment.
Perhaps it is wrong to judge a film so harshly on its ending, but I have always been of the mind that it is the final twenty minutes that make a film. It is this that remains in the hearts and minds of audiences long after they have left the theatre. Still Alice succeeds in so many ways, but at this final hurdle, it falls just a little bit short. Yet, the part of me which loves this film would say this in rebuttal: we can make the case that this a reflection of Alice’s life as it really was. The film cannot take us all the way to the end of the line, because it tells the story from the perspective of Alice, and Alice herself cannot do so. The film’s ending may not be particularly structured, particularly articulate, but its message is sincere and most deeply felt. Alzheimer’s may have stolen Alice’s intelligence, her command of language, her memories – in other words, her very sense of self. Yet her identity can never disappear due to the unyielding bonds of family – between husband and wife, and between mother and child. It is this great love that allows her to always remain “still Alice”.