STILL ALICE directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (USA, 2014)
This moving and sobering film is based on a bestseller by Lisa Genova. Her novel was initially self published after being rejected by numerous publishers who believed that readers would not be interested in such a depressing subject. Just goes to show what they know!
The movie vindicates Genova’s decision to choose a woman with an early onset of Alzheimer’s as a means showing the devastating effect of dementia on an active, otherwise healthy, individual’s life. This is a film about living with the disease rather than dying from it.
Catherine Shoard, writing in The Guardian, gets it spectacularly wrong when she says that the film “perpetuates the notion that dementia is more tragic when it affects the intellectual”. It does nothing of the kind.
The fact that Alice is a respected university professor of linguistics in no way suggests that the loss of communication would be any less devastating in a less prestigious job, as a film critic for example!
The choice of such a relatively young sufferer (she’s just turned 50 at the start of the movie) is not to suggest that she represents the norm or that she is a special case because of her social status.
Alzheimer’s is not just a disease of old age and can affect people from all walks of life. Whatever the age or IQ it’s a distressing condition for the sufferer and for the loved ones.
Genova’s aim was to “tell the truth under imaginary circumstances” and the film is to be praised for not resorting to cheap sentiment. Julianne Moore’s amazing (surely Oscar-winning) performance makes it an emotionally draining experience.
It is genuinely shocking to see Alice gradually become a stranger to herself . Her family is caring and supportive but can only watch the inevitable deterioration helplessly. At first it is just words and objects that are lost; but soon the forgetfulness cannot be dismissed merely as ‘senior moments’.
Her decline is rapid, just 2 years elapse before she needs full-time care. This is by no means uncommon, although in the majority of cases the decline is slower, taking anything up to 20 years before reaching this stage.
Alice tries to articulate what it feels like to forget everything that makes life meaningful; she seeks comfort in the opening lines of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem ‘One Art’ :
“The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster”.
The ease, and finality with which memories disappear is, indeed, not hard but, on the contrary, terrifying easy. Some losses may be insignificant (“no disaster”) but the cumulative effect is that only the shell of the person remains.
This honest and humane film is harrowing but important since it raises awareness of a condition that is too little understood.