Co-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have provided Julianne Moore with the role that’s finally earned her the highest industry praise, an Oscar – praise, it must be said, that the rest of us have been heaping on this brilliant actress for years. Working regularly with some of the finest auteurs around, she’s been a consummate performer, always good but mostly great. Even a cursory glance through her back catalogue will draw attention to a plethora of significant performances, including her early work for Paul Thomas Anderson in Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999), for the Coen Brothers in The Big Lebowski (1998), for Todd Haynes in Far From Heaven (2002), right through to her remarkable recent work including Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right (2010), David Siegel and Scott McGehee’s What Maisie Knew (2012) and a memorably caustic performance in David Cronenberg’s most recent Maps to the Stars (2014).
Her role as a fifty year old professor Alice Howland diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease is certainly a heartfelt, deeply moving one, even if the film’s other components don’t even come close to elevating it otherwise. In fact, much of Still Alice (2014), besides Moore’s work, and to a lesser degree the able support of Alec Baldwin as her husband John, is close to mediocre. The rest of the family unit is sketchily brought to life at best, whilst too often their angst and treatment of Alice’s disease as it shifts in time, is marked by the leanest of clichés.
Through it all, however, Moore humanises and dignifies the struggle of Alice to retain her identity as the deep, quickening fog of the disease threatens to swallow every memory and signpost to her past. All the while, composer Ilan Eshkeri’s two main ideas work in counterpoint; especially effective is his main theme, based around a plaintive three-note motif that cuts to the heart of Alice’s disappearing world. Based on Lisa Genova’s novel, the film does a fine job in the early scenes of illustrating the first troubling signs of Alice’s affliction: as she jogs to her nearby campus, she suddenly becomes disoriented. It’s here, in one of the best moments of the film that Glatzer and Westmoreland provide a chillingly effective, dialogue-free moment of consternation, the camera whirling around Alice as everything in her line of sight shifts out of focus.
Baldwin’s role is underwritten though he does provide enough of a presence to convince us of John’s tenderness and devotion to the cause. It’s a different story though for the meagre Kate Bosworth and Kristen Stewart as the couple’s daughters. Bosworth can offer little more than vapidity in her token scenes, whilst Stewart, in a slightly meatier role, is reduced to the only stereotype to which she seems able to conform, that of the mildly rebellious, mopey young adult – in this case, a budding actress whose notions of vocation directly oppose the path her parents would prefer for their youngest child. The mother-daughter scenes are predictable, lifeless and lacking insight, with Moore’s class offset by the abject mediocrity of Stewart’s limited emoting. The lone scene of her performing in a cheap stage production is a real low point; the very notion of Stewart tackling Chekhov is hard to swallow, even in theoretical terms.