Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is a college professor with a specialisation in language, lives a comfortable enough middle class lifestyle in New York City with her doctor husband John (Alec Baldwin), her three children having grown up and left for pastures new. She has recently celebrated her fiftieth birthday for which her close family attended a celebratory meal for at a restaurant, but now she has passed that milestone, she is starting to worry about her health. It started with little things, such as forgetting words and names she never had any trouble with before, something she could put down to her middle age but when she was out jogging she found herself lost in places she used to recognise. Now she worries she has a brain tumour...
But Alice doesn't have a tumour, as she discovers when she visits a neurologist and he performs tests on her. She doesn't tell her family as she wishes to be sure there's a problem, not wanting to worry them, but as the results come through the bad news is she has early onset Alzheimer's Disease. She thinks of the condition as an old person's problem, yet it does affect a percentage of younger sufferers, and for a while the film, based on Lisa Genova's novel, looks like a public service message to explain how to pin down the initial signs that you or someone close to you may be afflicted. But thanks to Moore's careful performance, it was able to build on the facts to bring the emotional consequences to bear.
Moore won the Best Actress Oscar that year, yet another example of the best method of securing the award is to play someone with a debilitating condition, which may or may not be an issue when there were actresses putting in excellent performances as women who did not face some personal, medical tragedy, and it wasn't only the actresses, the actors were often prey to the trend. And yet, once you knew one of the directors Richard Glatzer was suffering a genuine condition that was seriously affecting him, you would find it difficult to criticise his work too strongly, especially when he died not long after Moore's success in awards season for he brought an understanding that shone through every frame.
His husband Wash Westmoreland, a director who had gotten his start in porn, was obviously very well able to convey what was like to see someone you love gradually break down physically as well thanks to his experiences, and that offered a true poignancy to what could have wound up as a big screen variation on your typical disease of the week TV movie (indeed, Joanne Woodward had played a victim of early dementia in an award-winning small screen effort some years before). By casting a movie star they not only raised the profile, but were fortunate enough to have under their command one of the finest thespians of her generation, and Moore had dedicated her time on the film to making her portrayal as realistic as possible as Alice fades.
Some compared Still Alice to a previous Alzheimer's movie, Sarah Polley's Away from Her, but that work's depiction of the disease was less than realistic even if the emotions it struck were not. It hits every sufferer in different ways, even if the end result was the same, but if you had ever watched someone you knew deteriorate under the condition you would recognise all too painfully how true to life Moore's performance was. It wasn't simply her, as she was supported by a very able cast who brought across the anguish the characters must restrain lest they distress Alice too much, with Kate Bosworth as the eldest daughter brittle but understanding, and in particular Kristen Stewart as aspiring actress Lydia who has to set aside her dreams to eventually care for her mother; the scene where Alice watches her in a play and congratulates her not knowing who she is an early sign a sympathetic audience was in for a rough ride. There were sequences where you wondered if you were being manipulated, and of course you were, but it was enacted with humanity for a greater good. Music by Ilan Eshkeri.
[Artificial Eye's Blu-ray has interviews with Baldwin and the directors as extras, as well as the trailer.]