Linguist's life and language lost to Alzheimer's


Still Alice (M). Directors: Richard GlatzerWash Westmoreland. Starring: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart. 101 minutes

This is the year the great Julianne Moore will finally win her Oscar. She has some competition, notably from Reese Witherspoon for her remarkable turn in Jean Marc Vallée's 'woman versus nature' epic Wild. But with a Golden Globe already under her belt, Moore, until now snubbed by the Academy despite a string of excellent performances spanning two decades, is odds-on to take home the gold. 

She deserves it. Her portrayal in Still Alice, as a Columbia linguistics professor diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease, is exactly the kind of gutsy, emotionally complex performance for which Moore is renowned. She offers no mere caricature of the symptoms of the disease. Her Dr Alice Howland is fiercely intelligent, and passionate. She rages against helplessness at every step. 

For a glimpse of how good she is, watch the above clip. Alice and her husband, John (Baldwin), sit down to break the news to their adult children. Moore maintains a fragile, trembling stoicism throughout. But when she tells them the disease may be passed on genetically, the façade slowly implodes. 'I'm sorry,' she weeps, horrified by the prospect of what she clearly sees as a betrayal. It's heartbreaking.

Appropriately, the film's portrayal of the brilliant linguist Alice’s degeneration focuses sharply on her relationship to language. The earliest hint that something is awry comes when she forgets a word during one of her popular lectures. Later she is seen testing or training herself with lists of words she scribbles on a board while preparing food. To lose language is for her no less than an existential horror.

But there is little that she can do to resist the decline, as she well knows. Still she does not easily surrender control. Alice plans her own suicide, to be performed at a later date once certain facts that she identifies as fundamental to her being, are forgotten to her. The fact of this plan provides an added element of suspense, as we wait to learn how it will pan out. The eventual outcome is startling. 

Moore's brilliant performance is worth the ticket price. It is unfortunate then that the film is weakened by pivotal members of her supporting cast. Baldwin, as the career-driven biologist John, and Stewart, as the black sheep youngest daughter who becomes Alice's most reliable nurturer, both fade to blandness in Moore's glow. Baldwin is capable of better. I'm not yet convinced that Stewart is.

This is problematic for the film because after dedicating much of its running time to Alice's personal ordeal, it seeks resolution in the way these relationships play out. This is appropriate — Alice's loved ones, after all, are the ones who will remain after she is gone. But the lack of depth to Baldwin and Stewart's performances means that after a strong start, the film's final act fizzles.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Still Alice, Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Reese Witherspoon, Alzheimer’s, suicide



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Existing comments

I disagree. This movie portrays a very realistic account of this disease and it serves as much of a purpose to the cause as the movie "Philadelphia" did for AIDS. Not every movie is going to leave you happy and giddy. This is about a real experience and it well portrayed by all the characters. Stewart and Baldwin included.

Carina | 05 February 2015  

I haven't seen the movie yet but the novel 'Still Alice' by Lisa Genova is riveting. The characters are developed well and the description of Alice's journey is powerful. The author is qualified & experienced in neurological conditions & diseases. Yet she combines this knowledge with heart warming compassion. The local library may have a copy.

Lorna | 06 February 2015  

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