With a naturalistic performance of pure fear and fortitude, Julianne Moore paints a scary portrait of life with Alzheimer's Disease in Still Alice. This is an unlikely film. It's so hard to do justice to people with diseases like Alzheimer's in any art form. Usually, these stories are left to the Hallmark Channel. Still Alice has Moore though, who brings instant credibility.
Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland from a script based on Lisa Genova's novel, Still Alice begins by introducing the Howland family. Alice (Moore) is a Harvard doctorate and world-renowned linguistics expert married to an M.D., John (Alec Baldwin), who loves her dearly. They lead complimentary lives of their own and seem to have everything anyone would want. Their son (Hunter Parrish) and two daughters, Anna (Kate Bosworth) and Lydia (Kristen Stewart), have their whole lives in front of them and the future seems bright.
But one day, Alice gets lost during her campus run. She's baffled and consults a physician who wastes little time diagnosing her with Early-onset Alzheimer's disease. The directors do a nice job of staying out of the way of the story. There are no stylistic flourishes or melodramatic orchestral crashes to distract from what's onscreen. Alice is told in a matter-of-fact way about her disease and she handles it like a strong, intelligent person. But nightmares lay ahead.
Movies like Philadelphia and Lorenzo's Oil do nice jobs diagnosing illness with strong doctor's office sequences and Still Alice does as well. The tone is professional, restrained, and realistic. But at home, Alice explodes. She hides the diagnosis at first, but soon tells John and lets it all out. Moore has always been fearless emotionally and she plays Alice with pragmatism, but with an every-woman quality as well that speaks a universal language.
Early in the film, as Alice is diagnosed, she also learns her children are at risk since the disease can be passed genetically. They have a family meeting where she breaks the news to the three kids and it is positively brutal. All the actors impress as questions are asked, voices are raised, and Alice, heart-wrenchingly, apologizes. It is the first of many Kleenex-required scenes.
If this were a TV movie, the rest of the film would be a series of bawling, screaming scenes, but Still Alice quietly depicts the progression of Alzheimer's. Like leaves off a tree, Alice loses little pieces of herself with each new scene. She repeats things, she forgets, but she also develops systems for dealing with her deteriorating memory and she continues being a mother to her kids. Alice staves off the worst of the illness in order to continue living life as she's known it. And to ensure she's not burdening the people she loves. Little by little, Moore shows us the face of the disease.
Another film this year, The Theory of Everything, told the story of Stephen Hawking and depicted his ALS diagnosis and the years that followed. Eddie Redmayne, who plays Hawking, physically transformed to convey the effects of the disease, and Moore does the same thing, but she does it emotionally. Her subtle stares into nothingness and nervous energy do justice to a disease that takes everything from you and your family. It's like she's playing 10 different people. It's a killer performance driven by fear, and the best of 2014.