Still Alice – Past Tense Verbs and the Remaking of a Life

Still Alice – Past Tense Verbs and the Remaking of a Life

Part film review, part rambling response to death.

*here be spoilers*

I have never reviewed a film before, but then, I have seen few films which have had the immediate emotional impact of Still Alice. I have been utterly broken by Schindler’s List, I have openly wept at The Fault in Our Stars, I have stood on desks and called out ‘ Oh Captain, My Captain’, but Still Alice stands out. Most heart wrenching films involve death, and death allows distance; what makes Still Alice so moving is that it is, above all, about continuing to live while losing part of yourself.

It is no secret that Still Alice chronicles the life of Professor Alice Howland, a leading linguist, as she is diagnosed with, and slowly deteriorates through, early onset Alzheimers. Nobody could go to the cinema expecting it to be an easy film, but, in contrast to films like Schindler’s List, or either of two outstanding plays I have seen this year (Oppenheimer and Great Britainwhich address respectively the development of the Atom Bomb and the press scandals of recent years), Still Alice is an intensely personal film, which makes it far more challenging viewing. There are perhaps two cast members who are not family members and can be called ‘characters’, Alice’s neurologist and her departmental colleague. Other members of cast pass, by we see the story through the eyes of those who know Alice personally, primarily her husband John (Alec Baldwin) and her children (Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish and Kristen Stewart). The cast do a remarkable job of capturing the life of a real family – squabbling over life choices, mocking one another for failed relationships and the like. Likewise, their appeals to black humour to deal with emotional challenges mirror response I see within myself. Thus we see Alice as a family member, as someone we know and love deeply. Schindler’s List addresses some of the most horrific events of human history, and this allows us to feel distanced from it; Still Alice tells a story which could (indeed, does) happen to any family.

Alice is driven, and successful. She thrives on her work, and has spent her working life helping the world better understand language; a highly intelligent woman, defined by the way she communicates. Seeing her towering intellect first shake, then fall, makes the film hugely troubling as a whole, but certain aspects stand out among the rubble which is left as the film closes.

First of all, something must be said about the filming techniques which allow us to share in Alice’s increasing confusion and fear. Getting lost in the university in which she built her career is an early sign, forgetting words at a lecture another. Her initial decline is tied up in the minutiae of her life hugely successful life, it is not revealed through some major problem – those come later – but through little details which slowly cast light on her condition. At this point something must be said of Ilan Eshkeri’s remarkably simple score, which is understated enough not to intrude, but comes to the fore in moments of confusion and, contrastingly, in the frequent ‘home video’ recollections of Alice’s past, with her mother, sister and children. These recollections are intermingled with the primary narrative highlighting just how much Alice loses.

The acting is, of course, remarkable. Julianne Moore’s portrayal of Alice won the film some 20 awards, including both the Oscar and BAFTAs for best actress, and without her the film could not stand. Her portrayal is at turns touching and heart-rending, but Alice does not live in isolation. Particular praise must go to Alec Baldwin, who captures the essence of so many men– naturally distant, but no less loving for this – as he moves from angered disbelief to some kind of acceptance of reality. I hope I would not share his unwillingness to spend time witnessing the decline of the woman he loves, but I fear I would be just as ill-equipped to face his situation.

However, the standout  character for me was Lydia, the youngest of Alice’s three children, the one who doesn’t fit her parent’s academic-focussed expectations, and the one who is most engaged with her mother as she declines. Kristen Stewart’s portrayal is sensitive and nuanced in a way which leads me to question whether her acting in The Twighlight Saga was actually just a very convincing portrayal of a dreadfully written character. It is Lydia who engages with Alice on a non-clinal level, asking how her illness makes her feel, and forcing her to talk about her experiences on a personal level when she gives a moving speech to the Alzheimers Association. It is also Lydia who choses not to take the test which could determine whether she too will, in time, also develop Alzheimers, a choice which fits perfectly with her human interest in how it effects her mother. I do feel that more time could have been devoted to the responses of the other siblings, one of whom discovers she will in turn also face dementia, however this weakness allowed Stewart’s character to shine through as the most emotionally available.

What makes the film so powerful is that it takes you into a world where everything you are can be lost, while you remain. Baldwin struggles with his wife’s condition so severely, because he watches her cease to be his wife, but cannot grieve. One especially troubling scene has the two of them sitting in a frozen yoghurt shop, opposite Columbia, the university where Alice once taught. Alice talks about who she was, and John tells her “you were the smartest person I knew”, in the *past tense*. Neither of them question the assumption that the person sitting eating frozen Yogurt is not Alice. We see Alzheimers as something which kills the person, without allowing them to die, yet this very portrayal is undermined by the work’s title. In a climactic scene, a confused Alice, acting on recorded instructions from her past self, attempts suicide. I remain unsure as to whether I wanted her to succeed or not. I cannot help but put myself in the position of both Alice and her family; I hope that, like Lydia, I would have the courage to abandon the ambitions of an actress to care for someone I love, and I also hope that, like Alice, I would have the courage to minimise the suffering of my family, by preparing for a future where I am not myself. But I am not certain. I doubt I have the strength to be the man I would want to be.

Strewn throughout the film are passing references to Lydia’s interest in the play Angels in America, and the final scene of the film ends with her reading an extract to Alice, who has all but lost her ability to communicate, the thing which defined her. “I saw something only I could see because of my astonishing ability to see such things. Souls were rising, from the earth far below, souls of the dead of people who’d perished from famine, from war, from the plague, and they floated up like skydivers in reverse, limbs all akimbo, wheeling and spinning. And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles and formed a web, a great net of souls. And the souls were three-atom oxygen molecules of the stuff of ozone, and the outer rim absorbed them, and was repaired. Nothing’s lost forever. In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead. At least I think that’s so.”

Still Alice presents a challenge to anyone who thinks they know who they are, and how they might react to a situation which is all to common. Nobody wears a pink ribbon for you if you have Alzheimers. Nothing is lost. It is simply reshaped.