I Am Not Throwing Away My Shot/Bartlet for America

I Am Not Throwing Away My Shot/Bartlet for America

Yesterday, I was embedded in two of the greatest works of culture to come out of the USA in modern times. Both set a high bar, for quality, emotional clout, and contemporary significance. And both remind me that, if I want to make a difference, I have to be in the room.

*************************HERE BE SPOILERS************************

In the morning, I found myself watching Two Cathedrals, probably the greatest episode of the greatest ensemble TV shows every produced – the show that set the bar – The West Wing.

In Two Cathedrals, President Bartlet struggles with the decision as to whether or not he will run for a second term in office. He is riven by insecurity, distraught at the loss of one of his oldest friends, uncertain about his own future, and trying to deal with an international crisis.

As the episode reaches its climax, against the strains of The Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms, President Bartlet reaches his decision. But to get there, he takes himself through the numbers: children have a one in five chance of being born into poverty, 44 million Americans don’t have health insurance, homicide is the leading cause of death for black men under 35, 3 million Americans behind bars, 5 million American Drug Addicts. He knows exactly what is at stake, or rather who – because he is dealing with people’s lives – and he knows that he can do something about it.

In the evening, I moved forward 20 years in production, and back two centuries in subject, to the founding of the USA, and the incomparable musical Hamilton, undoubtedly the best musical I have ever seen. (Buy the Cast Recording, buy the Mixtape, see the show in New York or London if you can, I cannot emphasise this enough.)

If you don’t know about Hamilton, I can only assume you have been living under a log. But to summarise, it follows the life and fortunes of Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton, the orphaned son of a mixed-race relationship, who was born in the Caribbean and emigrated to what would become the USA, and rose to become the fledgling nation’s first treasury secretary and a key figure among the American founding fathers. His rise was truly meteoric, and owed a great deal both to his towering intellect (shared with The West Wing’s President Bartlet), and his remarkable ambition.

Hamilton also, like President Bartlet, recognises that decisions are made by those who show up, and takes the decision to prioritise serving the nation, even when it comes at a cost to his relationships. He pushes through a plan for a new central bank, though it means abandoning his family. He longs to fight in the American War of Independence, despite the wishes of his wife. He endorses his enemy, over an old friend who he believes lacks the principles needed to lead the country.

There is a great deal I could go in to about either of these shows, yet watching them in the same day, the key thing which hit me (apart from how utterly fantastic they both are), is this one similarity. Both take the decision to do all they can to better shape their nation; to be in the room where it happens. Hamilton will not throw away his shot. Bartlet for America.

Of course, both have platforms – Bartlet is President, Hamilton, is George Washington’s right-hand man, yet both get there through hard work. The world has changed, even since the early 2000’s. Where once getting the platform was the challenge, now anyone can have a platform. Information is democratised. The challenge, now, is to say something interesting. To make your voice heard. And that is something I haven’t nailed yet.


It’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird

It’s a  sin to kill a Mockingbird

This post explores my reaction to reading Go Set A Watchman – here be spoilers for Watchman and for To Kill a Mockingbird (if you can really call comments on a novel released over 50 years ago ‘spoilers’).

I recently finished reading Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee. Never have I been so conflicted about a book.

Let me explain.

I have loved To Kill a Mockingbird since the first time I read it in my teens. It certainly ranks in my top five favourite books, and might just nudge it’s way to the top of the list. Mockingbird is, for me, one of the best explorations of justice and equality ever written, and I have long thought that if I can grow up to be half the man Atticus Finch is, I will be justifiably proud.

I was, therefore, apprehensive when I heard about Watchman. I was aware that it was an early exploration of the world and characters which eventually formed Mockingbird, and that its release was far from uncontroversial. I had heard, too, that Watchman presented those characters in a very different light to Mockingbird. Together, these led me to fear that reading Watchman would, to a degree, destroy the relationship I had with the Finches et al. In the end, I was so uncertain that I didn’t buy or borrow Watchman. It was not until I was given a copy at Christmas that I decided to read it.

Well, here I am, having finished Watchman, and I cannot deny that, as I expected, my relationship with the world which Harper Lee created has changed. But I remain uncertain as to whether or not this is a ‘good thing’.

Watchman is set some 15-20 years after Mockingbird. In it, Scout Finch returns to the small Town setting of Mockingbird, to find that the civil rights movement has strained previously functional relationships between black and white communities and people (one of the most painful sections of the narrative involves Scout visiting Calpurnia, who had been her housekeeper and surrogate mother, and finding a cool reception). Over the course of the novel, Scout comes to realise that the people she had held up as paragons, in particular her father Atticus, are not as perfect as they appear.

Both novels explore Scout’s relationship with Atticus extensively, and it is here that we see the greatest shift. In Mockingbird, Atticus is presented as the town’s moral compass, willing to stare down a lynch mob unarmed, to defend an innocent black man. We readers assume this is because Atticus cannot abide discrimination and injustice – a view supported by his positive attitude to Boo Radley, a young man with severe learning disabilities.

Watchman alters our perception of Atticus. Whilst I do not believe the book presents him as actually racist (as some people might argue), it does show a man with painfully distorted priorities – a man willing to tolerate racism, in order to attempt to maintain the social structures of Alabama (structures built around social discrimination and segregation), and because his preeminent concern for the law means that he cannot condone the Supreme Court’s intervention and infringement on States’ rights (through rulings such as Brown vs. Board of Education).

Scout cannot dismiss this new experience of what her father is like. I cannot dismiss Watchman as an ‘early draft’ of the novel which became Mockingbird because (except for a small number of allusions and flashbacks), it covers new territory. It has a significant new character (Hank), while two other main characters from Mockingbird (Dill and Jem) are absent. I am therefore forced to integrate the novel into my understanding of Harper Lee’s Maycombe County.

This is a painful experience for Scout, and similarly for me. We both held up Atticus as an ideal man and father. Watchman forces us both to face the reality that everyone is flawed. In some ways, this enriches the reality of the novels. They are more true in that they present a world in which there are no paragons. Scout discovers this new reality some time after the events of the novel, paralleling the experience of readers who first saw Atticus as a hero through her eyes, and are now forced to accept the imperfection of reality. This is especially interesting for people like me – people who first read Mockingbird as children or teenagers, and have grown up in between the two novels. Our experience of the world matches the unique publication order of the novels.

So, the shift is painful but true to life, (and pertinent when we consider that to this day the USA has failed to address its legacy of race division). Nonetheless, I feel I have lost something which cannot now be regained. The novel treats Scout’s experience as one in which she ceases to see Atticus as a God – a source of absolute moral authority – and sees him instead for nothing more or less than the man he is. Atticus is now forever tarnished for me, as he is for Scout. I can still praise his virtue, but it is now tinged with disappointment. I cannot help but feel it might have been better not to see that side of Harper Lee’s world. I know all our parents disappoint us sooner or later, but I wonder if, for that very reason, there is a value in having paragons?

We all need ideals to give us something to strive for. There is surely a place for fiction in providing this? Yet, I cannot now go back. And I’m honestly not sure if I would choose to do so if I could.

A Monster Calls – stories & hope

A Monster Calls – stories & hope

“Stories are wild creaturesWhen you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?”

 This evening, I joined some friends at the cinema. We didn’t know what we would see, as we were attending ‘Screen Unseen’, where a secret, pre-release film is aired. So I came without preconceptions, and

A Monster Calls is a strange beast. Based on an idea which could not be developed prior to the creator’s death, Patrick Ness wrote both the book and subsequent screenplay, and in some ways it is what you would expect from Patrick Ness; YA fantasy which deals with a range of personal and cultural themes. Yet even a genre as broad as YA fantasy struggles to contain A Monster Calls which feels like a cross between The Iron Giant and A Christmas Carol. 

The overarching plot concerns standard YA fare of fractured families, bullying and illness. It is solid and well delivered by a cast which largely captures “messily ever after” as the reality of modern life. Particularly strong in that capacity is Toby Kebbell, who plays the estranged father of the lead, and is entirely plausible as a man who muddles through, distracted by other concerns. The younger actors are less compelling – as is so often the case. A bullying sub-plot is under-developed and slightly wooden. Lewis MacDougall, who plays the protagonist Conor O’Malley, does not demonstrate a particularly wide artistic range, but he is nonetheless convincing as a withdrawn adolescent struggling to deal with family collapse (perhaps because such a character does not need to portray much more than anger and sadness). Overall, the primary plot is somewhat obvious and stilted, but will still prove cathartic to the more emotional audience members.

The pacing is occasionally frustrating. The film relies on the telling of stories within the narrative, and also on dream sequences, giving an unhelpfully episodic feel. In contrast, the cinematography and art feel faultless. Sections of the film use beautifully animated water-colour to tell stories, in a style reminiscent of the tale of the three brothers in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Live action sections perhaps over-emphasise pathetic fallacy, but they do so beautifully. In one scene Conor and his grandmother are waiting at a level crossing, while rain drums on car windows. The effect of view of trees outside the car, seen in half-light through a wet window makes the background itself look like watercolour. Other parts of the plot focus heavily on art and illustration; I had not expected to take such pleasure in a film of someone drawing.

What really brings A Monster Calls to life, though, are the fantasy elements, driven by Liam Neeson’s Monster (itself wonderfully rendered, feeling both life like and as though it has been pulled straight from the book’s illustrations). The Monster, a tree-spirit rooted in the landscape, who has the slow mannerisms of Treebeard or the eponymous Iron Giant, seems to grow from the scenery, even when indoors, being somehow a character and scenery at once. And it is the Monster which brings out the rich themes of the film. At one level, the Monster provides an education in loss for the Conor. More important, however, are the inter-woven ideas of hope, and story.

We are told that “belief is half of all healing”, yet the healing expected does not come. What is offered instead, is a healing unlooked-for, a learning to accept the world as it is; to recognise what to hold on to, and what to let go. The Monster does this through stories – stories which show the world, not in black and white, but in shades of grey. His stories are true, and they help explain the complexity of the world to Conor, who is still learning to accept that not every story has a hero and a villain.

Many people I know put great store in the power of stories to explain the world. Stories offer a means to understand the world beyond the story – whether they concern life and death, sexuality, God or just people. When the Monster notes that “Stories are important. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.”, he is speaking for Ness, who has staunchly defended public Libraries and Librarians as vital resources to help young people understand the world.

In 2016, these feel like very important themes. In a year where hope seems to vanish, and where we seem constantly astounded by the world in which we live, stories are vital. It is because of our failure to listen to, and understand other people’s stories that we have seen rifts tearing across societies. The Monster notes that “There is not always a good guy. Nor is there always a bad one. Most people are somewhere in between” – we must accept this as a starting point if we are to rebuild our world. And yes, I know that listening to the people who voted for Trump, or who chose to target innocent civilians in acts of terror will not, alone fix the problems against which they reacted, but we must begin by listening, and in turn telling our stories. They may weak havoc, but sometimes that is necessary.

I do have another point of contention with Ness. The Monster claims that “You do not write your life with words…You write it with actions. What you think is not important. It is only important what you do.” This seems to ignore the fact that to put an idea into words is to give it life. Words matter more than this might suggest. Ideas matter. Because hope is an idea, and we must hope. Belief is half of all healing. This feels like a time for healing.

Paris Burns and the Russians Dance: The Bolshoi in London

Paris Burns and the Russians Dance: The Bolshoi in London

Last year, I saw the Royal Ballet perform Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. I liked it. It was pretty. But I was unconvinced. It didn’t seem to me to have all that much to it. I missed the depth of character you get from prose and poetry. Words matter to me, especially if something is meant to have a plot. So it was with some trepidation that I agreed to go with the same friends to see the Russian company, the Bolshoi Ballet, perform The Flames of Paris. I knew it would be beautiful. This is, after all, perhaps the greatest Ballet company in the world. But I was worried I would be disappointed.

I needn’t have worried.

Despite my low levels of Ballet exposure, it didn’t take long for me to realise that I was watching something truly remarkable: a group of performers at their very best, doing what they love. Just as with music (an area I am much more familiar with), a dancer enjoying themselves cannot help but shine through. And when the Bolshoi dance, the whole company shines.

There were several reasons I loved the evening. First and foremost was the sheer quality of the performance. The beauty of the dance, the height of the leaps. The standout was of course the Pas de Deux (I had to look that term up), the large duet between the peasant girl Jeanne, and the revolutionary Philippe, who have fallen in love, and who, near the end Ballets end, become the first couple to be married in the new republic. A Pas de Deux is an excuse to show off, but I can safely say that the dancers – along with everyone in the audience – loved it so much that it did not seem at all overblown. Then there was the small ballet-within-a-ballet, Rinaldo and Armida, which takes place at the court of Louis XVI. It had no bearing on the progression of the plot, but that allowed space for the dancers to enjoy themselves. It was light-hearted fun at its best.

Speaking of the plot, that was perhaps what I struggled most with at my last outing. I came wanting Shakespeare with dancing, and got dancing with a plot drawn from Shakespeare. That, of course, is not a problem The Flames of Paris has. There could be no comparison with the story told in another medium, because the story only exists for Ballet (albeit in two versions – this was the 2007 rewriting of a 1932 Ballet). I did not lament the absence of prose that ‘could ascend the brightest heaven of invention’, nor could I be saddened that characters I knew well were here reduced to shallow reflections.  Instead, we were given a simple yet effective story, built around the emotions which come through so clearly in the medium: revolutionary fervour, passion, stoic acceptance of a new world order, exuberant joy. This was aided by a setting we all know – the French revolution, but about which we have few human stories. The Ballet filled that gap at the human level, and did so effectively.

The plot was aided by stunning costumes – who doesn’t want to look like a dashing revolutionary – and a simple staging – just enough to add depth, without distracting from the dancers – though the revolutionaries’ flag could have been bigger.

As for the score, despite dating to 1932, it was rooted in the classical tradition, and was comfortable returning to the baroque for Rinaldo and Armida, as though the court of Louis XIV was itself watching a revival of an earlier masterpiece. The composer, Boris Arafiev, fulfilled his role perfectly, offering music which was a platform for the Ballet, underlining its emotions and themes, without being obtrusive. and was appealing to most people’s tastes. Certainly, I enjoyed it.

As an untrained observer, I could find nothing to criticise, yet as we left, there was at the back of my mind, a cloud. You see, there is one small plot point which gave The Flames of Paris a depth I had not expected. Over the course of the Ballet, Jeanne’s brother, Jerome, also falls in love. Adeline, wins Jerome’s heart by releasing him from prison after he defends his sister’s virtue, but she is only able to do so as she is the daughter of the man who imprisons Jerome, the Marquis de Beauregard. She is an innocent, who saved one of our heroes from an unjust lord, yet that does not redeem her for the sin of being born a daughter of the Ancien Régime. Between the celebratory dances of the revolutionaries, she is sent to the guillotine, leaving the audience with a sense that the revolution has a dark side not seen before, an almost sadistic brutality to their adulation. All to often, the Ballet reminds us, it is not the people who seek revolution that pay the price, nor is it even those they overthrow. It is those unlucky enough to be caught up in the chaos, by dint of accidents of fate. The story is the same, whether it is set in 1789, 1917, or 2011. Somehow we always seem to forget this.

A Night at the Ballet

A Night at the Ballet

Those of you who know me well will be aware that I have always had rather middle-aged taste – be it in music, clothes, or parties. I much prefer a pub where you can chat to a club, I listen to radio 4, and I like to be in bed by 10:30 on a school night. So, it may come as a surprise that until recently I’d never been to the ballet (or at least, not to my memory – I might have been taken to the Nutcracker as a child, but it didn’t have a huge impact on me).

Last week, as part of my ongoing indoctrination into the London circle – that middle-class behemoth of OxBridge graduates, dinner parties and over-priced cooking utensils – I went to see Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. The Royal Ballet’s revival of Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography (first staged fifty years ago), has had excellent reviews, and I was very excited.

I will start by saying that I was not disappointed. It was beautiful, fundamentally. The bulk of the score would not have felt out of place in a film like Brief Encounter (which famously featured the Second Symphony of Prokofiev’s contemporary, Rachmaninoff), and was perfect for the first flushes of Romeo and Juliet’s romance. Likewise the Dance of the Knights (Montagues and Capulets), could comfortably have been used as entrance music for a rhythmic Darth Vader, and did amazing things to the atmosphere.

Everyone involved in the production should be hugely proud. Sets, whilst simple, where effective and costumes were well balanced between renaissance finery and minimalism allowing for the huge range of movements needed by the dancers. The Orchestra was excellent, and the dancers… The dancers were in another world.

But despite all this, I remain unconvinced.

Time for a confession. Though I know Romeo and Juliet as a play first and foremost, the only complete version I have seen is the Baz Luhrmann film (I know, I am working on it). Both Luhrmann and Prokofiev provide soundtracks (though they are almost as far removed from one another as is possible). The huge difference is, of course, that where Luhrmann maintain’s Shakespeare’s script, the Royal Ballet entirely strips away all language, replacing it with MacMillan’s choreography.

Words have always done things to me – certain hymns and poems hit me. Parts of stories stay with me – phrases, quotes, snatches of songs. At its most basic, language is an artistic medium no different from music, dance or sculpture, but words seem to have a particular value in developing stories. Words drive character development, they give shades of nuance and ambiguity to actions and places. In contrast, the ballet, though amazing, struggled to provide this detailed narrative. Characters like Paris were driven to the periphery; Friar Laurence lost his place as a voice of reason and caution.

And yet, many things came across brilliantly: the bustle of the Verona market, Juliet’s shy response to the first advances of Paris, Lord Capulet and Tybalt arguing over whether to politely welcome Romeo to the party or forcibly eject him, Romeo’s unwillingness to fight Tybalt once related to him through marriage. It is astounding what can be done through choreography.

I am sure I would be far less aware of the limitations of the production if I weren’t comparing it to a play – they are of course, entirely different mediums. I am fine reading and watching different versions of the King Arthur legend, but Shakespeare is definitive. I cant help thinking of one as an adaptation of the other, and an adaptation which fails to provide the same depth to the story.

And more than that, some things simply don’t come across as well in dance as in dialogue. Aggression, in particular, suffers when set to music. Don’t get me wrong, the fights were beautiful, but real, impassioned conflict is not, and the opening fight between Montague and Capulet suffered for this. Similarly, deaths were too overblown (the exception being Paris’ death, which seemed overly abrupt), undermining their emotional impact and making them almost a parody.

Then again, the various responses to deaths provide some of the most stunning moments in the work. The devastation wrought by death was inescapable, be it that of Romeo to the death of Mercutio and later (apparently) Juliet, or Lady Capulet to both her daughter and her close kinsman, Tybalt.

Even in those most emotionally fraught moments, however (and despite a score from one of the great composers of the last century), I didn’t tear up. I suppose part of that is unfamiliarity with the medium. I need to know it better to appreciate the emotions being conveyed, so I will just have to go again, ideally to something I cant compare to a different medium (Swan Lake is on the cards for next year). Still, I can’t help thinking that, while the ballet is abstractly beautiful, if I had to chose to between plays and ballet for the rest of my days, I would come down on the side of the words. Thankfully, that’s not a choice I have to make.

Othello at the RSC – A Question of Identity

Othello at the RSC – A Question of Identity

Othello at the RSC? It was always going to be an excellent production. But I don’t think I was quite prepared for just how impressive it would be.

This is the first time I have seen Othello, though, inspired by Grace Petrie’s Iago, I have read the play before, so I was most excited by the chance to finally see it. Especially when it included £5 tickets through the RSC Key scheme (16-25 year olds, go check it out).

The thing which first jumps out at you, from the opening ‘Tush never tell me’ is that in this production Iago is played by a black actor, Lucian Msamati (the first such casting in RSC history). Much of the play focuses on the ‘Moorish’ ethnicity of Othello, someone who is naturally an outsider, and struggles to fit into Venetian society because of this. When Othello marries Desdemona in secret, her father Brabantio cannot believe that Desdemona should ‘Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom/ Of such a thing as [Othello]’. That she should betray her father out of love for a Moor is to him so inconceivable that he accuses Othello of Witchcraft. Indeed, throughout the earlier scenes in Venice, Othello’s ethnicity is repeatedly used as a basis for abuse and insult. And Iago is among the worst of the abusers. Put simply, Iago repeatedly states ‘I hate the Moor’ – he is not deserving even of a name. He is a ‘Barbary horse’, a ‘black ram’, a ‘devil’.

Of course, the basis for Iago’s hatred of Othello is not racial bias, it is jealousy of success, and feelings of misuse because Othello has promoted Cassio above him. The casting of Iago as black alongside Othello therefore does very interesting things for the dynamic of the whole play.

First, both Othello and Iago can be seen as trying to be something they are not. Othello wants to fit in with the Venetian elite – he marries the daughter of a Senator, he even dresses similarly (both Othello and Brabantio have rich purple coats in the opening Venetian scenes of the RSC production). Likewise, Iago wants the success of the white Cassio. Othello should naturally share the position of Iago as an outsider in Venetian society – they should be united by their otherness. But instead, Iago, the black officer, is passed over for Cassio, the white junior. Othello acts as the Venetians would, in an attempt to match their standards. Yet neither Iago nor Othello can hide what they are forever. From the start there are some in the upper ranks of Venice who see Othello as different despite his rich rich dress. Instead, they see him as inferior, sub-textually linking him to Iago in his appearance, and therefore linking the hero of the piece to the villain.

As the play progresses, this link between Othello and Iago becomes more pronounced, spreading beyond appearance. First his dress changes to that of a military man, then, slowly he embraces the whispers of Iago – that Desdemona is unfaithful to him, that she and Cassio have become lovers.

The Grace petrie song I mentioned before, Iago, presents the view that Iago is the voice in your head, leading you astray – that Iago is part of who you are. By extension in the play, Othello and Iago can be seen as two sides of the same coin. Their shared appearance, rather than masking differences, is simply an illustration of deeper similarity. This is made explicit by two very powerful scenes. In the first, after the victory of the Venetians over the Turks at Cyprus, Iago is seen leading the torture of a captive. This has no major relevance to the plot, but provides an insight into the character, serving to balance his ‘public’ persona as a trustworthy, sometimes comic character (brought out in the directing of the performance). It is as though the public face of Iago (which hypocritically mocks Othello for his Moorish descent, and seeks to win the crowd over with his comic ways) is drawn back to reveal his true nature. Later, when Othello becomes convinced (falsely) of Desdemona’s infidelity, he proceeds to take out his anger on Iago, mirroring the earlier torture.

Despite the best efforts of Othello to fit into Venetian Society, he cannot hide his true nature. By the end of the play, Othello has murdered Desdemona, and Iago has done the same to his wife Emilia, as well as to Rodrigo. The two characters can be seen as parts of a whole. Iago is the voice in Othello’s head leading him to doubt, who lives only to see the world burn. In the final scene, with Othello, Desdemona, Emila and Rodrigo dead, Iago is held in captivity, his fate to be decided by Cassio, the very man who’s promotion Iago so resented. Iago has wrought destruction and chaos, but has gained nothing for his trouble. As the play ends, he is held in chains, on his knees, laughing. It is not Othello who is a Devil, but Iago.

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.