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‘Julianne Moore rightly won the Oscar for her haunting performance’: Still Alice review

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A PIERCING first-person study of a decaying mind which leaves the protagonist and us the audience nowhere to hide

(12A, 101mins)

Director: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland
Stars: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart

We may know the facts but sometimes it takes a great performance to properly illuminate the horrors of a disease.

Julianne Moore rightly won the Oscar for her haunting performance in Still Alice as a super-bright 50-year-old, Dr Alice Howland, struck down by early onset Alzheimer’s.

Unlike other pictures which have tackled the illness – Iris, Amour – Still Alice is not primarily the story of a relationship but a piercing first-person study of a decaying mind which leaves the protagonist and us the audience nowhere to hide.

This is what it’s like folks, a merciless disintegration that is no respecter of age or intelligence: Alice is as sharp as they come, a linguistics professor, no less, who has made her name thanks to the very command of language and memory she now finds under assault.

From first forgetful moment, to dizzying disorientation through to snatched moments of clarity and the eventual erosion of an entire personality, we are immersed in Alice’s private battle with the emphasis very much on private.

Alice is happily married to busy fellow academic John (Alec Baldwin) and has three adult children, including aspiring actress Lydia played by Twilight’s Kristen Stewart, but this is not a traditional Hollywood “disease” movie in which everyone comes together; or at least not in the way you expect.

It is less family drama than survival thriller in which Alice is cast adrift, desperate for solid ground, be that a memory, person or merely her mobile phone (which Alice programmes with a daily quiz to test her faculties).

To whom can she turn to for comfort? The answer is almost nobody given the cruelly alienating nature of the illness. Alice breaks the news of her diagnosis to disbelieving husband John in the middle of the night – one of several quietly heartbreaking scenes – and although John strives to be supportive there is a sense he never quite gets over the shock.

As for the the children they have their own trauma to contend with: Alice’s condition is revealed to be genetic and almost certain to be passed on.

However, an unlikely and touching closeness develops with Lydia whose artistic ambitions Alice has hitherto shunned but which prove their value. The pair have a number of beautifully played scenes.

Alice’s decline is terrifyingly rapid but never feels rushed thanks to the well researched screenplay and Moore’s extraordinarily subtle performance. Chilling moments mark the disease’s progress – she gets lost in her own home, fails to recognise her daughter – but there is levity and inspiration too.

Directed with fierce honesty and focus by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, Still Alice is not fun by any stretch but it’s a powerful and humane work that lingers in the memory. A memory you’ll be grateful to have.

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