I couldn’t help but wonder if the first thing that crossed Julianne Moore’s mind when she signed on for Still Alice was ‘ooh, guaranteed Oscar’. A story of a university linguistics professor suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s was always going to be awards-bait film-making, and with an actress of Moore’s calibre in the lead, the trophies must have seemed a sure thing. And, predictably, it seems all but certain that Moore will win for Best Actress this February, and quite deservedly. Her turn as Alice Howland is arguably this 2014’s finest performance, regardless of gender and elevates an otherwise soapy exercise in dramatic overkill.
Alice’s initial diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is, much like Eddie Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking being told about his MS, one of the year’s most gut-wrenchingly frightening moments. She is visibly stunned, and her world falls apart around her ears all in one moment in the most effectively shot sequence of the film. The camera ever so slowly loses focus whilst sound drains from the scene, until the final silence and blurriness almost comes as a surprise. However, much of this tact is lost as the film progresses, adding in extra drama and framing all the happy moment shots with the same soft focus of a wedding video. The most obvious example of superfluous drama is when it is revealed that the disease is genetic and that Alice is a carrier. Her children get checked, and the only one of them to have the gene is her eldest daughter (Kate Bosworth), who is also a carrier, but has just confirmed that she’s pregnant. It’s a plotline that would feel more at home in daytime TV, and is then completely abandoned anyway.
Still Alice is plagued by moments like this, not realising that the central drama and performance is absolutely strong enough to carry the film itself. Julianne Moore is truly exceptional as Alice, giving one of the most real and believable portrayals of a human in crisis in recent memory. She completely inhabits the role, never bowing to the pressure to let the audience know just how hard she is working. When considering a career as remarkable as Moore’s, it’s too early to say whether or not it’s her best work, but it’s a damn strong contender. However, I can say without hyperbole or hesitation that Still Alice does contain the career-best performance of Kristen Stewart, playing Alice’s youngest and most empathetic child. It’s a revelatory display of acting from the former Twilight star, managing to hold her own in every scene she’s given with Moore, and also feeling deeply real. The rest of the cast, whilst solid, pale in comparison to these two (even Alec Baldwin, playing Alice’s husband, is completely overshadowed), who should be long remembered. It would have been very easy to go for hysterical emotions with characters like these, so the restraint and subtlety shown by Stewart and Moore is commendable to say the least.
If only the rest of the film matched up to them. Writer/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland unfortunately play all their emotional beats too heavily, be they uplifting or depressing. The loss of one’s own mind or the loss of one’s parent to a disease are both absolutely terrifying prospects, made flesh by two of 2014’s standout performances, and we don’t need underexplored genetic problems or standing ovations given to weepy speeches to remind us of that. About three quarters of the way into the film, Alice says to some other sufferers of Alzheimer’s, ‘I have to spend every day of my life learning how to lose’. Meanwhile, Julianne Moore will most likely be spending every day of the next month learning how to win.