Still Alice
Directed by Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland
Starring: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart

Featuring a heart-breaking central performance from Julianne Moore as Alice Howland, a Columbia University Linguistics professor diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s, Still Alice shows us the painful reality of a disease we’d really rather not think about, a disease that frightens us, that we don’t understand and are terrified of experiencing first hand.

Based on Lisa Genova’s 2007 bestselling novel of the same name, the film tracks Alice’s diagnosis after the first effects of the disease cause her to forget the words to a speech she gives at her University. The film is an intimate portrayal of the devastating impact the disease has on Alice’s husband (Baldwin) and their children – also at risk due to the hereditary nature of the condition – as they struggle to come to terms with the fact that, in spite of her condition and the irrevocable changes it brings, she’s still Alice. 

It’s not a particularly uplifting or life-affirming story, like The Theory of Everything or similar films that feature a struggle to overcome adversity and find new hope along the way. There is little hope to be found in Alice’s story. But then, as the film reminds us, this is often the reality for people with Alzheimer’s. Fear and uncertainty are the driving force behind the film’s emotional power and relevance. At one point, when feeling particularly low and afraid of what she might lose next, Alice tells her husband “I wish I had cancer”. When you have cancer you’re a survivor, people raise money for you and wear pink ribbons and you’re seen as a hero rather than a social outcast.

Indeed the film doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of Alice’s struggle with the condition. In one particularly upsetting sequence Alice stumbles upon a video on her laptop which she had filmed shortly after being diagnosed, in which she gives herself careful directions for taking sleeping pills and to “lie down and go to sleep”, a decision she describes as “the next logical step”. It’s a heart-in-mouth moment which really brings home all that Alice still has to lose, despite what her condition has already taken from her. As she acknowledges herself in a later scene:

“I’m still alive. I know I’m alive. I have people I love dearly. I have things I want to do with my life. I rail against myself for not being able to remember things – but I still have moments in the day of pure happiness and joy.”

Director Richard Glatzer (who has a degenerative condition himself and can’t speak, directing the film using a text to speech app on his iPad) confronts us with our own discomfort concerning Alzheimer’s and the general ignorance surrounding the disease. The film forces us to consider how it might feel to have a degenerative disease like Alzheimer’s and makes the point that Alice’s story isn’t a story of suffering but of struggle; of struggling to stay in touch with who she once was and an opportunity to live in the moment while “mastering the art of losing”.

This learning to lose is Alice’s ultimate triumph. As she irresistibly loses her memory, her understanding and her sense of self, everything which previously defined her, in the face of certain defeat and irredeemable loss, she remains herself not because of what she has but in spite of what she has lost.

Ronan Wright blogs about films from Belfast at Filmplicity.

Ronan Wright is a graduate in Film Studies from The Queen’s University of Belfast. As well as contributing to MercatorNet as a film critic since March 2011 he has run Filmplicity, a Belfast-based film...