STILL ALICE IS as traumatic as you’d expect with a well-deserved Oscar for Julianne Moore…even though it’s just an OK movie. The story (from Lisa Genova’s excellent novel of the same name) centers around Alice Howard (Julianne Moore), a renowned Linguistics academic who, as the movie begins, in the middle of a lecture, forgets – naturally – a word. This simple slip – it happens to us all – is the beginning of the end; and we follow as Alice’s brilliant mind, and her whole world, collapses.
The self possessed, well respected Alice morphs, as her early onset Alzheimer’s becomes more and more pronounced into a lost, dependent child-like person. Of her illness, at the time when she’s still lucid, she says, “I wish I had cancer. People wear pink ribbons for people with cancer. But for Alzheimer’s, it’s just an embarrassment”. It’s worse than an embarrassment. This is a disease that’s hereditary. Alice must face her three children, one of whom is pregnant, with the awful fact that there’s a 50/50 chance of some or all of them inheriting the disease.
It’s almost as though, as her world shrinks – from that of well respected global traveller to someone increasingly confined to a room under watchful eyes – her legacy is set to expand.
Whilst it is unfair to compare a movie with literature, in this case the comparison makes sense as it perhaps pin-points what’s wrong with the movie: “Still Alice” the book was centered entirely within the deteriorating mind of the protagonist. As a reader, you were made privy, in a very clever way, to one person’s unique, confused, selfish, frightened view of the world. The central conceit the book seeks to dramatize is a simple one: what is the meaning of self? If individuality is the sum of a person’s memories and experiences and interactions; and these memories begin to fade, what then happens to the individual? Is there something deeper than memory or friendship or familial love – all of which disappear – that retains the core of what makes a person a person? Will Alice still be Alice even as she slips into intellectual oblivion?
The problem with the movie is that directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmorland shift the focus away from an internal, introspective journey and transform the story into a soapy domestic drama about how families cope in times of stress. Alec Baldwin is husband John, whose caring and love is not enough to seduce him away from his self centered careerist drive; Kate Bosworth is daughter Anna – prim, self-righteous, and equally self centered around becoming the perfect mum. The only one who is prepared to put herself on hold in order to take care of the woman who, for her, remains still Alice is the rebel daughter Lydia (an outstanding Kristin Stewart).
In her book, Lisa Genova (who also co-wrote the screenplay) knitted together elements of Alice’s memory and fragments of her past in order to offer the reader a perspective of who Alice was so that the extent of the loss became that much more poignant (there’s a nice moment when Lydia yields her diary – a record of memory – to her mother, almost as if there’s a need to compensate for the loss that’s taking place). But in the movie, the past is shown simply as a few blurred 8mm scenes of clichéd and generic “family life”. We never really get to grips with who Alice really was, and indeed how the past makes us who we are. The focus is so centered on how well Julianne Moore portrays the onset of Alzheimer’s that the driving idea of the book vanishes.
Since we never get to know who Alice is, the question of whether she is still Alice or no becomes beside the point.
The overriding questions become: will John leave New York and take up the big job in Minnesota? Will Lydia go to college as Alice wishes? Does Lydia have the Alzheimer’s gene? Do we give a shit?