‘Still Alice’ Review: Julianne Moore Peels Back the Layers on a Heartbreaking Disease

By  · Published on November 14th, 2014

Sony Pictures Classics

Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is a beautiful, intelligent, respected, accomplished linguistics professor, but she’s also starting to forget things. Nothing big ‐ a name or where she put something. As an academic with an insatiable desire to learn and teach, plus a bustling family who still look to her for advice and guidance, it’s not surprising that Alice might be a little distracted or overwhelmed from time to time.

After she loses her place in a lecture she’s giving a UCLA, Alice decides to take the practical approach and make sure her random moments of forgetfulness are just that, but after consulting with a neurologist (Stephen Kunken) she discovers she’s suffering from the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. For a woman who has dedicated her life to the study of language and how people communicate with one another the idea of slowly losing her memory is a fate worse than cancer.

As Still Alice begins, we see Alice celebrating her 50th birthday surrounded by her family, and it’s clear she’s the strong matriarch holding this group together. Whether discussing her daughter Anna’s (Kate Bosworth) desire to start a family, mediating a conversation between her son Tom (Hunter Parrish) and husband John (Alec Baldwin) or explaining why her youngest daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart) is absent from the event, Alice is the pillar everyone looks up to.

The Howland family is an eclectic bunch and the actors have a natural and warm chemistry with one another, making them feel like a true brood that have spent many years together, but the film stays focused on Alice as she deals with (and descends into) her diagnosis. It is a choice that allows Moore to truly sink into the role to create a well-defined character that she slowly strips down as Alice’s disease takes over.

Under the direction of Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (who also adapted the screenplay from Lisa Genova’s novel of the same name), Still Alice is a slow burn that uses subtle moments to show how Alice is still there, but definitely changing. Alice will seem like her normal self, smiling at her daughter and making conversation, until you realize that Alice thinks she is talking to a stranger, not her own child. Moore fluidly shifts between the Alice we meet at the beginning of the film to someone who becomes a patchwork of her past self ‐ sometimes she seems like herself, until a confused glance or question will suggest otherwise.

There are no sweeping orchestral swells meant to drive you to tears here. Still Alice instead takes its time to tell a story that is honest and provoking, but no less emotional. We watch as Alice fights to hold on to the woman she knows she is, and it’s devastating to watch the little moments that prove she has no control over what is happening to her. When Alice loses her way in her own house, watching Moore panic between knowing she is lost and knowing she shouldn’t be is both mesmerizing and heartbreaking.

In many ways, Alice begins to turn into a lost little girl who is fascinated by the world around her, but never sure of her place in it. Glatzer and Westmoreland use natural moments like Alice meeting her grandchildren to show how someone in Alice’s condition can still appreciate tender simplicity, and it’s in these quiet, unassuming scenes where Still Alice is able to deliver its true emotional impact.

While supported by an impressive cast, Alice’s family members are sometimes given little to do other than sit back and watch as Alice fades away. When John, Tom and Anna discuss the best way to move forward and care for Alice, they are set out of focus in the background, further suggesting how they are becoming more and more removed from Alice’s life. One of the film’s best scenes has Lydia reading to Alice, and the love between them and the impact of Alice’s changed demeanor is palpable. Keeping the focus of the film on Alice makes sense and certainly works, but Still Alice would have also benefited from a few more scenes like this.

Still Alice almost feels like a documentary instead of a narrative feature the way cinematographer Denis Lenoir keeps things brightly lit, feeling like you are glancing in on a family instead of watching a film. Ilan Eshkeri’s piano and string filled score adds a subtle influence that almost sounds like the music you would expect in a romance, and in many ways it is as Alice learns to love and embrace herself knowing the memories of who she is will start to slip away. Eshkeri wisely keeps the music from manipulating the emotions on screen (sometimes removing the music all together), allowing the characters to deal with their situation in a way that is raw and honest and again reinforcing the “fly on the wall” feeling Glatzer and Westmoreland have keenly established.

The Upside: Immersive performance from Moore; narrative is a slow burn full of honest and real moments; crisp cinematography; beautiful score that supports without overly influencing the emotional impact of the film

The Downside: Underplayed supporting cast that could have used a few more meaty scenes

On the Side: Every 67 seconds someone in the United States develops Alzheimer’s and almost two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s are women. [Source]