Still Alice (US 2014) with Q&A

still-alice-9780743581486_hr This film has won attention for the deserved acting awards at the BAFTAS and the Oscars for Julianne Moore. However, this screening at the Hyde Park Picture House honoured the returning son – co-writer and director of the film Wash Westmoreland was raised in the Yorkshire and later emigrated to the US. So an enthusiastic audience included people connected with his schools, FirTree Primary and Wetherby High School, members of a teen pop band in which he played and cinema regulars. Wash was introduced before the screening and received a warm welcome. He told us he remembered his first film at the Hyde Park Picture House, Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1970), and later (aged 16) coming to see The Deer Hunter (1978). He also started his film career in Leeds on Super 8. We then watched the film written and directed by himself and his partner Richard Glatzer for a combination of US Independent film companies with support from New York State Film Office. The title character is Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) a fifty year old professor of Linguistics at Columbia University. She is married to the successful medical practitioner, John Howland (Alex Baldwin). She also has a married daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth), a younger son Tom, and an unmarried daughter Lydia (Kristin Stewart) who is attempting to make an acting career without going along the educational route. The latter is a cause of dispute between mother and daughter. After several memory lapses Alice goes for consultation and then a number of tests. She is diagnosed with an inheritable form of Alzheimer’s Disease. The inheritable aspect causes concerns for Anna. And Alice’s rapid deterioration in terms of her mental capacity causes concerns and problems for her family. It also has an increasingly negative impact on her work. But the focus of the film is the experience of Alice herself, something that marks this film off from others that have treated the disease. We follow Alice’s increasingly frustrating and disturbing downhill struggle to the point where her daughter Lydia returns to care for her mother when John obtains a new and prestigious post in Boston. The acting in the film is uniformly good, but Moore’s performance stands out. This is a subtle and very carefully judged characterisation. Moore apparently visited Alzheimer Centres and talked to sufferers. So there is a method aspect to the film, as there is in the Lydia’s onscreen performance. Baldwin’s John is brisk, not exactly unsympathetic but wanting to get on with life. The film predominately uses a shallow focus, which supports the concentration on Moore but occasionally also frustrates one’s attention to other characters and actions. As one might expect with this sort of drama there is extensive use of music. This is noticeable but well-balanced in the soundtrack. The script makes use of the character’s linguistic interests to point up the progress of the disease. There are numerous visual and aural motifs that offer a linguistic feel to the film. There are several quotations used: we see a performance of the closing scene of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. And I was pleased to hear an extensive passage from Tony Kusher’s very fine Angels in America. The film closed with a round of applause with practically the whole audience sitting through the entire end credits: though there was a deal of conversation and a few mobile phones on. There was then a Q&A with Wash Westmoreland. P1000062 The presenter asked a few questions and Wash talked about how he came to work on the film. He and his partner were asked to adapt the book of the same title by Lisa Genova. Wash’s partner had been diagnosed with a degenerative disease – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. So their life constantly threw up parallels to the story on which they worked. He was full of praise for the cast, including Alex Baldwin and Kristen Stewart, both of whom have ‘reputations.’ He remarked on the use of shallow focus as a way of focusing on Alice and explained that the book relies heavily on internal dialogue. So the film had to develop ways of presenting the point of view of Alice. There were several questions from audience members. He explained that the author drew on her own experience with her grandmother to write the book that they adapted. The book was originally turned down by publishers so she self-published it on the Web. This led to a publishing contract from Simon and Schuster and the book becoming a success. Wash and Richard worked on the script together, taking it in turn on their typewriter – nice to hear of one still in use. There is a speech by Alice in the film to an Alzheimer sufferers’ meeting which Richard wrote, seemingly drawing on his own experience of a degenerative illness. By the time the shoot arrived Richard had ‘lost his ability to speak’; and had to rely on an i-Pad on set. The actual shoot took 22 days, though these comprised from 12 to 14 hours a time. Wash also talked about growing up and later on meeting Richard in LA in 1995.  Richard has already directed a film Grief about a couple parted by Aids, and they also worked on other films and television series. Their adaptation followed the book closely (as the Sight & Sound review confirmed). Wash said that the film’s ending was also as in the book, though he and Richard added the extract from Angels in America. I had to leave before the end in order to catch a bus. Otherwise I would have liked to ask Wash to what extent they had deliberately avoided the more unpleasant aspects of the disease. The increasing frustrations of such a decline are well presented in the film. But from personal experience with a family member I know that there are occasions when situations become quite combative: and there are occasions when things get really grim. Apart from one not every explicit toileting mishap the film avoids this. And the process of the disease is not followed to its frequently grim ending. Still Alice is not alone in this. Other films dealing with dementia, Iris (2001), The Notebook  (2004) and Away From Her (2006) come across with the same restraint. The most explicit treatment that I have seen of the situation was in a Swedish film, This tasteful discretion is partly explained by the films uniformly treating of families from the various strata of what we call the middle classes: Notebook has the lowest class register. Certainly in all these films the family or characters seem to been economically affluent, relatively well-educated and therefore cushioned from the sharper end of social deprivation. I think a working class tale of dementia would offer a much grimmer portrait.

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2 comments

  1. Rona

    This is an independent film that has found great success. It’s financed by Christine Vachon’s Killer Films, responsible for many important films not least those of Todd Haynes. Interesting is the presence of Maria Shriver through Shriver films, financing this feature as its first. (In a piece for NBC Shriver refers to her personal experience of Alzheimer’s). It had a muted visual style and an understatement in telling Alice’s story, a professor at Columbia who finds she is suffering from early dementia at fifty. This film, despite the intense and towering performance by Julianne Moore, did function successfully as an ensemble (part of its ‘independent’ character). What was interesting was the decision between telling a story about this character or by this character. When you have Moore’s star power, it would be difficult to shift the centre of consciousness away from her. The film uses conventional means to indicate an inferiority, the use of Super 8 footage to reflect memory and the splitting of Moore away from the background to indicate her loss of orientation. It’s a powerful piece of work, with some desperate ironies and I could see how it could easily have been structured in a more melodramatic form, not least because of the relationship between mother and daughter. Whilst Kristen Stewart’s clenched vocal delivery can seem overly mannered to some, she does convey great authenticity. There was something very recognisable in her desire to find a connection to her mother even as she slipped through her grasp. There was an implausible moment that made me think of ‘Rain Man’ (1988), where the writing in its desire to show revelation and emotion has to step outside the bounds of what would be likely to happen. Given that Stewart is reading from the operatic text that is ‘Angels in America’ at that point, it’s the well-judged understatement of the performances which crucially kept the moment one of real feeling despite its potential to appear wishful.

    This question of point of view is where this version of an Alzheimer’s story differs from, for example, Sarah Polley’s debut ‘Away From Her’ (2006) followed Julie Christie’s Fiona as she slowly recedes from her husband and there are no redemptive moments. It’s a painful film with equally affective central performances, more a ‘tandem’ piece alongside Gordon Pinsent as her husband to enable a point of identification. Fiona’s inacessibility makes us invest our own sense of loss and frustration.

    Finally, in ‘Still Alice’ what intrigued me most was the decision to exclude material through its episodic style. What happened in the moments just after she had told her family? What happened to her relationship to her elder daughter, which for reasons I won’t go into, suffers a rift after the news? Had there been a decision in editing to drop away parts of the narrative involving the other siblings, to foreground Stewart and Moore in order to keep the focus clear?

    • Roy Stafford

      I found this a very difficult film to watch. Fairly early on I wondered if I was going to make it to the end. This isn’t necessarily a criticism of the film but it perhaps does indicate something about its address to audiences. It seems to present itself as a film that can’t be criticised – something which extends to Julianne Moore’s performance. I think she had to win the Oscar. Who could argue against her performance? Who of us knows what it feels like to suffer what her character suffers – and therefore to know how it might be presented? (I know that could be said of various medical conditions, but this one has some special features.) In the opening sequence her character is giving a lecture and she forgets a key term. I’ve done that several times (and forgotten numerous names) and it is disturbing. I know that this kind of memory loss is part of the ageing process but it is still disturbing.

      Part of my problem with Still Alice is that it utilises a form of realism (perhaps I mean it avoids obvious signifiers of melodrama) and then presents a series of what could be the worst possible outcomes (no spoilers). So Moore’s character is well-placed to articulate her fears and to find ways to accommodate the disease and also to make us think about our own response. I actually found her performance irritating (the constant smiling and joking) and it wasn’t until her scenes with Kristen Stewart that I was able to re-engage. Lydia challenges her mother and I felt that this relationship came across as something I could understand. Lydia then shifts her position which again I accepted. I confess that I only watched the film because I wanted to see Kristen Stewart’s performance, so this may be a compromised observation.

      However, I also want to compare the film to Away From Her, Sarah Polley’s film with Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent. I’ll have to think about Rona’s PoV question. I wonder if it is simply that Away From Her is an adaptation of an Alice Munro story and that it is constructed as a melodrama – it gives us permission to engage with an emotional drama? The narrative doesn’t give Fiona, the Julie Christie character, the chance to be aware of her condition in the same way that we watch the decline of Julianne Moore’s Alice. Perhaps I’m saying that I felt manipulated by Still Alice but not by Away From Her? That’s probably an unfair comment but I’m just trying to articulate how I felt while watching the film.

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