It was no surprise that Julianne Moore picked up the best actress award for her performance in Still Alice at the Oscars. Of course she did. Moore is a major league actress playing an Alzheimer’s sufferer.
Increasingly, star power plus human tragedy is proving to be the formula for guaranteed Academy Awards success, and Moore’s Oscar win means that Still Alice arrives with plenty of accompanying critical praise and expectation. In truth, it’s a solidly put together, but ultimately unremarkable drama.
Moore’s character, Alice, is a successful linguistics professor and family woman in her 50s, who discovers that she is suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s. Worse still, the strain she is afflicted with is a familial one, meaning that each of her three grown-up children has a 50-50 chance that they will suffer the same terrible fate as their mother.
Moore is undeniably excellent at portraying her character’s slow decline, and the gradual mending of her fractious relationship with her youngest daughter, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), is the film’s heartbeat. There are also a number of quietly devastating moments, such as Alice’s first visit to the doctor and the scene in which she tells her family the awful truth about her deteriorating health.
Despite these highlights, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that Still Alice coasts off the back of its emotive subject matter and star turn. It would have been almost impossible for an actress as great as Moore not to have audiences sniffling into their hankies when presenting them with such a sad story. This film, though, fails to make the most of its potential.
The running time is too brief and, Lydia aside, Alice’s family hardly get a look-in. The potentially fascinating subplot about whether her children might also suffer from Alzheimer’s is dropped far too quickly. Most disappointingly of all, while the film depicts the initial stages of Alice’s decline with great care, it then shies away from depicting the full horror of what Alzheimer’s eventually does to a person.
A bolder approach (the way that Michael Haneke, say, deals with illness, ageing and death in Amour) would surely have paid richer, if more uncomfortable, dividends.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (06/3/15).