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Crippling illness won the year’s two top acting Oscars. One went to physical affliction, the other to mental. If you were impressed by Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, curling into a ball of physical paralysis and defiant mental resilience as Stephen Hawking, try Julianne Moore, succumbing to early-onset Alzheimer’s in Still Alice.
Illness unlocks acting doors. The drama of falling prey to a potentially fatal disease catches humanity at its most poignant. Panic; realisation; a glimpse of the intimacy between life and death. Above all — in Moore’s performance — a sense of the preciousness, as they fade or fail, of the things you took for granted. Like knowing where you are. Alice’s first awareness of diminishing awareness is getting lost in her own New York. Out jogging, she stops, looks around, cannot recognise the Columbia campus where she teaches. The people and buildings dissolve into a literal blur. Later, at home, she cannot find her own bathroom. Incontinence, cruelly, crowns disorientation.
The co-filmmakers are Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer, a couple whose own marriage — Glatzer has motor neurone disease — must have bestowed insight into the spouses played here by Moore and Alec Baldwin. (At first zealous and solicitous, he becomes desperate for a distance that will bestow perspective and emotional self-preservation.) It hardly matters that, the Columbia moment apart, Still Alice lacks great screen artistry. Sometimes it’s more like a problem-of-the-month teledrama: the tastefully suffering cod-classical music, the grown-up children emanating concern around the dinner table.
Watching Moore, though, we become grateful for the non-intrusive blandness. We’re left open to the reach and outreach of an actress catching the successive tragedies of illness like falling knives. One moment she can’t remember ingredients for a favourite dish. The next it’s names and faces. Sometimes she can’t remember that she can’t remember. Moore’s own face starts to become as bare a cupboard as her mind. It’s more than the no-make-up look. First, lines of doubt and fear map her face. Then starts to come a blankness like infantilism. It’s the beginning of the end; or an end enacted like a cruel, mocking recreation of the beginning.