As someone who is not a regular or frequent movie-viewer either at home or in the cinema, I was nevertheless moved yesterday to take a trip to my local multi-complex in order to join the proverbial three men and a dog to watch Still Alice, the drama in which Julianne Moore gives a BAFTA and Oscar-winning lead actress performance.
[Actually, in the one I visited, there were just two couples, two single females beside myself and no dogs at all. Furthermore, my first and lasting impression of my movie-house visit was that the auditorium sound system had been turned up to ear-splittingly loud – an interesting conclusion, given that, as someone who is a senior citizen (and therefore presumably possessed of failing hearing) this is not normally a complaint I tend to make in public situations].
Still Alice – written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland – is a low-key item that premiered at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival and to date (well 22nd March 2015) has just passed the US$20 million-mark in terms of gross revenues.
Moore plays Alice Howland, a linguistics academic at Columbia University, who discovers that she has early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease in a form that is genetically-related and therefore potentially passed on to her three kids Lydia, Anna and Tom (played respectively by Kirsten Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish). Alec Baldwin, as Alice’s husband, is the other player in the story.
Dementia is a subject of increasing concern to governments and media alike these days as we all live longer and therefore increasingly prey to age-related mental conditions that were of less concern to previous generations, probably in part because they tended to die of other causes before they got old enough for dementia to become an issue. In this context Still Alice is a valuable contribution to the cinema and wider audience because it at least addresses the issues and implications directly but also sensitively, in the sense that it went deeper and wider than might easily have been the case and certainly avoided shorthand clichés.
To be sure, ably supported by her ensemble cast members, Julianne Moore is superb as the lead who – given her professional expertise – notices her mental issues before anyone else does and becomes alternatively serene and then frustrated, angry, resigned, resourceful at hiding her symptoms, confused, lost, and finally increasingly reliant upon her family members in order to operate as a normal, fully-functioning adult human being before her mental faculties gradually slip away, leaving her totally dependent.
I had been warned in advance that the movie was upsetting and harrowing but these were not the feelings to which I personally succumbed.
Rather, though I was initially engaged by both the family set-up and its varied issues and admired the general quality and creativeness of the production (with, for example, the directors emphasising Alice’s incidents of confusion by use of picture focus and clarity in her immediate vicinity and blurring non-focus further away), from about halfway through I noticed myself becoming detached and ‘outside’ the movie. I began to concentrate more upon the technicalities of the film-making process than the progress and direction of the story.
My hunch afterwards that my problem was to do with the timeline. We were informed, via the dementia specialist that Alice and her husband consult, that early-onset Alzheimer’s can progress swiftly. Not knowing what that meant exactly, I found it difficult to follow how much time was passing between some of the scenes as Alice went through her journey. Was there a day, a week, six months, between them as we saw each new scene and indeed new evidence of her inevitable descent into dementia oblivion? I couldn’t tell and the dialogue didn’t make it clear.
Sadly – both as regards Still Alice and my first visit to a cinema in ages – I came away with a slight ‘Huh? Was that it?’ sense of let-down and dissatisfaction. Still, we all live to fight another day …