Review: Still Alice

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Still Alice, US, 2014. DIR. Jonathan Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland. Starring: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish.

Based on the 2007 novel by Lisa Genova, this Toronto Film Festival release places Julianne Moore at the centre of an emotional tour de force that illuminates the experience of Alzheimer’s disease.

Moore plays Alice Howland, a distinguished linguistics professor at Columbia University, who is particularly fascinated by the relationship between memory and communication. Signposting her demise from the get-go, the film carefully drops hints that Alice’s sharpness might be going blunt. A conversational mistake here and there, a name forgotten or a momentary fumbling for words. The stakes are immediately clear – this is a woman whose everyday existence depends and thrives on her grasping of language, just as she appears to be losing it.

KSF-SA2014Intellect is Alice’s currency, her way of understanding the world – she supports her daughter’s law career and her son’s medical career, but her youngest daughter’s aspirations to become an actor are deemed frivolous and unrealistic. Everything she has defined herself by centres around academia, and use of the mind. The devastation of Alice’s diagnosis of early onset Alzeheimer’s is compounded by the possibility of it being hereditary and the risk that if her children were carrier’s they would be 100% likely to also suffer from the disease. Eventually, when Alice’s lectures become increasingly erratic and muddled and she’s forced to let her employees know of her medical condition, so unravels a fear of being redundant and useless.

There is a quote from The Great Gatsby that seems to illustrate Alice’s experience well: “he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world… He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass”. Everything that seemed stable and simple now appears to her as strange or complex; her familiar sky has become incoherent. The film does a brilliant job of communicating this gradual deterioration of the mind.

When Alice goes for a run for example; she loses her bearings. Moore’s frightened and disoriented expression becomes all the powerful considering this is her normal, repeated route. Camera movement and cinematography firmly locate our perspective with Alice’s, employing blurred visuals and 360 degree rotations, as Alice becomes increasingly panicky, to simulate her sense of being untethered and utterly lost. This is also effectively contrasted throughout the film with crisp and focused close-ups; of ice on a branch, seashells in a bowl, etc., so when specifics become increasingly difficult for Alice to grasp and her mind become vague and unfocused, the cinematography becomes all the more potent.

It’s tempting to call Julianne Moore a revelation, because her performance is so convincing, nuanced and heart breaking. But of course, Moore has been giving us stalwart, versatile and brilliant performances for two decades. Her Alice is at once brave, terrified, defiant and practical about her inhibited future. As she painstakingly loses grip of her reality, Moore’s eyes become more vacant, her skin more colourless, her body cowers in frailty and vulnerability and finally, she loses her beloved words. It’s a transformative performance – physically and intellectually – that won’t fail to tug on your heart-strings.

Moore immaculately, and accurately, captures an experience of Alzheimer’s and the sheer degeneration of the mind that no-one can really prepare you for.

75-2Alec Baldwin meanwhile plays a subdued and supportive husband, whilst their three children: Anna, Tom and Lydia are depicted by Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish and Kristen Stewart respectively. As an ensemble they illuminate the variety of responses to dealing with Alzheimer’s, from obliviousness to compassion to pandering to the disease. In part down to the precision of the script, the cast provide impeccable, subtle support without ever stepping on Moore’s toes.

Stewart in particular reveals an attentiveness and vulnerability to her performance, as Lydia grows from being a distant, struggling actor to an emotional pillar of the family, and someone on whom Alice can rely. Her scenes with Moore are a testament to the virtue of stripped back storytelling, and together they articulate a stunning depiction of a mother-daughter relationship, tested by tensions, disparities and misunderstandings, but united by a profound love for one another.

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Still Alice also goes a long way to changing the perception of people living with Alzheimer’s. There’s a particularly heart-wrenching speech that Alice delivers at an ‘Alzheimer’s Association’ conference, which reveals her keen awareness of being patronised, ridiculed or victimised and how removed she becomes from the decision-making process which affects her life. But it’s in the quiet moments of despair and misrecognition that Still Alice is at its most compelling and devastating, when Alice suddenly mistakes Lydia for someone else or when her sense of time lapses. You can’t help but feel empathy and sadness for her struggle (it goes without saying that tissues should be close to hand).

The delicacy and sensitivity with which Alzheimer’s disease is realised could in part be down to the fact that writing/directing couplet Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have had to deal with Glatzer’s diagnosis of ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Whilst Alzheimer’s attacks the mind, and ALS ravages motor-neurone functioning, their understanding of incremental setbacks and adjustments and of living with something that alters your perception of your self is very clear to see.

still-aliceThe soundtrack predominantly consists of piano or string compositions, which layer a melancholy into the narrative at times unnecessary. But there’s also a discordant buzzing or tense crescendo in moments of memory lapse or crisis, that reiterate Alice’s confusion, to terrifying and poignant effect. Integrated into the narrative are also snippet flashbacks of Alice’s childhood, distinguished by a sepia-toned and grainy effect, until they eventually blur to non-existentence. This compositional synaesthesia weaves colour, sound and editing into its exploration of the disease, and work to dramatic effect to create for the audience a tangible and visible emulation of Alice’s struggle. An especially striking compositional touch, was this shot to the right, where the several mirrors resonate with the idea that Alice perception of herself is fracturing.

Still Alice could be accused of putting a prettier face on the disease, choosing the elegant, athletic and 50 year old Moore, as opposed to a more senile protagonist. And in doing so suggesting that is somehow more painful and more of a loss to get Alzheimer’s when you’re well educated, middle-class and have everything to live for. Whoever you are and whatever ever age you are, the gradual disintegration of your memories and of all you’ve accumulated in life, is a harrowing experience to endure.

But ultimately, this is Alice’s story and by extension, Moore’s film. A story of one individual whose self-assurance and control is eroded, whose ability to remember and recall is lost, but whose intelligence and vitality will be remembered by her family, and whose memories are never entirely forgotten.

Verdict: One of the most understated, powerful and shattering films of the year. Julianne Moore gives herself over to portraying Alice and perhaps much like the disease’ effect on her, this adaptation will leave you speechless.

 

Review: All is Lost

One man encounters a wave of obstacles.

Robert Redford in All Is Lost
DIR. J.C. Chandor. Starring: Robert Redford.

This appears to be a film where Robert Redford is hell-bent on getting, and staying, wet. Opening titles inform us he is a man estranged from his family, exploring the Indian Ocean on a sailboat and 17,000 nautical miles from the Sumatran straits. And then disaster hits. More than once.

It’s certainly not a film for the easily exasperated. Or with a short attention span. Redford awakes in his boat to a foot of water threatening the rest of his peaceful journey. A cast off piece of cargo leaking shoes has severely dented ‘Virginia Jean’ and left him gluing his boat back together and pumping out the water. Such scenes were of a particularly upsetting nature to me having recently experienced great amounts of flooding in Surrey.

Mere moments away from regaining his sailing stride, a brutal storm hits and poor Redford is rained upon and then thrown briefly overboard. At the ripe old age of 76, one can’t help but think this was a particularly taxing shoot for the veteran actor. He is the sole focus of the film; dominating the entire screen time and requiring sparse dialogue – action is the name of the game.

After the storm wreaks irreparable damage to his boat, Redford is forced into a dingy. At approximately half-way through the film, a repetitive element to the narrative makes itself apparent. The lifeboat springs a leak and another storm causes life-threatening damage. I was close to shouting ‘come on already’ aloud in the cinema. And whilst this could be mistaken for laziness, rather it seems to evoke the inimitable, unforgiving and unfathomable dangers of the ocean. The sea just doesn’t damn well care that you might have been through this before.

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Director J.C. Chandor, whom previously helmed ‘Margin Call’, has proved he can deliver a tightly-woven and thrilling film. Here he moves away from financial crises and power suits, but still demonstrates assurance and thought in depicting a vast and empty seascape. His cinematography is pared back, switching elegantly between high angle shots, as well as underwater ones that emphasise Redford’s boat as a mere dot dwarfed by vast and tempestuous surroundings. The depiction of sunrises and sunsets with each passing day that Redford is able to survive could very well rival ‘Life of Pi’ in their breathtaking beauty. Chandor, alongside the sound crew, create a film of elegiac and ambient detail. Every creak, whistle and groan is amplified to the extent you never feel dialogue is required. Moreover, the array of shots and pacing of the film mean that despite an unchanging setting, you never know what to expect. It’s gripping stuff.

Holding the film together, as well as his boat, is the delightful Robert Redford. Unlike the situation, he’s easy to watch. You feel safe in his company, trusting that he’ll deliver an honest, subtle and emotive performance. But this isn’t so much a performance, as a complete embodiment of character. It’s unfussy, naturalistic and thoroughly praise-worthy. He remains admirably calm throughout most of the tribulations, so when on the verge of tears he yells ‘Fuck’, you know he’s in trouble. There’s a moment when he’s curled up, or perhaps crumpled, within the dingy, the darkness rolling in, that if the credits were to roll you would feel distraught. Utterly bereft even. Over 1000 people died in the sinking of the Titanic, but this is one man you are willing to stay alive; such is the power of Redford.

There are bug-bear moments and slight flaws in consistency – the fact Redford has access to completely dry and uncreased paper in his lifeboat to write a letter to his family hints at a lapse into contrivance, and the soundtrack felt a tad overbearing. At one point deep and ominous drumming music alluded to possible shark attack – which then reoccurred with the appearance of sharks – whilst at Redford’s moment of peaceful resignation, the non-diegetic music became painfully melodramatic.

But these are small flaws in otherwise bravura filmmaking. It’s testament to the changing nature of film – with ‘Gravity’ being another example – that studios, actors, directors, e.t.c. feel able to make these slow-burning, unfurling and narratively- diverse pieces of cinema. And like ‘All is Lost’, still hold and very much reward, our attention.

VERDICT: A distressing, experimental, measured and fascinating film. Just as Redford’s fate is at the hands of the ocean, for an 1hour and 40mins you are utterly at the hands of this narrative. Soak it up.