Written and directed by the duo of Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (“The Last of Robin Hood,” “Quinceañera,”) “Still Alice” is a haunting, resonant drama. Based on Lisa Genova’s novel, it’s the story of Alice Howland, a wife, mother and linguistics professor who falls, terribly slowly and then terribly swiftly, into early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Surrounded by her family, her career, and no small amount of material comfort, Alice’s descent is as terrifying as it is ironic; a professor of linguistics who’s studied language acquisition all her life is now unable to find the right words, but aware enough to track her downfall. Between the terror of the diagnosis and the irony of the circumstance, Alice is a part that would demand the best of any actress, not just to play it but also not to over-play it; how fortunate for us, then, that Julianne Moore, one of our finest actresses, plays the title role.
There’s a possibility that the basics of “Still Alice” make it sound maudlin, or more on the frequency of a made-for-TV movie than what it is. But this is not only sensitive material handled with tact and humanity, it’s also sensitive material bolstered and braced by Moore’s stunning performance. It’s not just that Moore has a steady and firm hand on her work even as Alice loses more and more control; it’s the basic humanity of her performance that stuns you as she goes through her crises. “I wish I had cancer,” she notes to her M.D. husband, John (Alec Baldwin), early on. “I wouldn’t feel so ashamed. People put on pink ribbons if you have cancer.”
For all the big scenes you would expect in a drama like this — the first time Alice tells her husband, the first time she tells her children (played by Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish, and Kristen Stewart), the meetings with her doctor as the diagnosis gets worse — it’s also worth noting that every scene here is written with depth to match its force, with everyday realism to match its exceptional nature. Alice isn’t above planning her own suicide; she’s not above using her condition as leverage to get her actress daughter to go to college by framing it as one of her last wishes.
There’s an extraordinarily tough and smart delicacy to “Still Alice,” and it stretches far beyond the writing or Moore’s performance or even the sympathy of the circumstance. The film superbly uses its own focus (as shot by cinematographer Denis Lenoir, “Carlos”) as a device, with the world blurring and blooming into shapes and colors as Alice loses her train of thought and snapping back to crispness when — or if — she recovers her own mind from the ghostly hands dragging it down. The score, by Ilan Eshkeri (“Kick-Ass”), is also a standout, covering everything from beautiful notes in near-silence to sequences that are meant to — and do — evoke Alice’s confusion and loss.
Moore’s work has been earning raves since “Still Alice” debuted at the Toronto International Film festival, and with good reason: It’s a careful performance, one that never steps too far forward into melodrama while at the same time never holding back. (A scene with Moore touring a Alzheimer’s facility — ostensibly for a relative, but actually for herself — is a quiet masterpiece.)
All the other performers are excellent as well; Baldwin, torn between frustration and sympathy, between an extraordinary event and the need to move forward, is superb, with Stewart a special standout as the most wayward daughter of the family, a would-be actor brought back to the fold by tragedy.
Any drama can wring tears out of an audience; it takes a superb drama to deserve them. You’ll want to see “Still Alice” to confirm that it contains one of the year’s best female performances by the astonishing Moore, but it also — and thankfully — contains and embraces much, much more.