In these our days, "melodrama", in its old definition as practiced by 20th century Hollywood, seems to be a dirty word, one that has been confined to a world of "movie-of-the-week" or Hallmark Channel clichés or to Nicholas Sparks adaptations. It's therefore appropriate to laud directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland for having attracted the divine Julianne Moore for what is an unabashed melodrama, one that in the past could have easily become a "woman's picture" like the ones Ross Hunter turned out at Universal. Of course, these days you have to go independent to even set up such a project - Still Alice was backed both by Christine Vachon's persevering New York shingle Killer Films and French company BSM Studio.
That's also one of the reasons why this big-screen adaptation of Lisa Genova's novel about a New York academic's diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer's somehow falls short of what it could be: it's a film that treats its melodrama seriously and earnestly, but for all its intelligence it lacks that added spark that would make it a remarkable. In fact, were it not for its acting and for its star, Still Alice would be a decent but rather forgettable mid-list programmer condemned to a long half-life on television and VOD.
But there's Julianne Moore, and suddenly everything changes.
At the moment, Ms. Moore is one of the reigning actresses in American cinema, working at a consistently remarkable level even when the films somewhat stay beneath her considerable talents. Her Alice Howland reminds the viewer at every possible juncture why that is so; it's her second doozy in 2014 after her (Cannes award-winning) insecure film star in David Cronenberg's eerie Maps to the Stars. But it's a much more demanding role, and an even more remarkable performance: in playing a woman who is slowly descending into the fog of forgetfulness that is Alzheimer's, Ms. Moore modulates her acting to such a finely-tuned point that she single-handedly raises Still Alice above that midlister status.
It helps that her directors allow her the space and follow her with welcome restraint; this is certainly not an exploitative film by any stretch of the imagination. If anything, it looks at its issue with a sober intelligence, as seen in the first truly serious sign that something is the matter with Alice, when she goes for a run in the park and suddenly fails to recognize where she is and how she got there. The actress' sensitive realization that something isn't quite right is perfectly complemented by Messrs. Glatzer & Westmoreland's decision to leave her in focus while everything all around is blurred, in an elegant solution that makes the effects of the disease terribly visible.
In other aspects, though, Still Alice seems to shy away from a more daring approach to its subject: Alice is a linguistics professor, someone who's spent her whole life uncovering the secrets of language acquisition, and the irony that she is now fated to forget all of her research is an intriguing possibility the film raises occasionally but never truly follows up on. And the familial issues Alice's diagnosis brings up are under-scripted and over-clichéd, despite Kristen Stewart's best efforts as Lydia, the only of the three Howland children to actually have an inkling of what this diagnosis means.
Yet, for all that, it would be hard to begrudge Still Alice for its humble modesty and quiet competence, and Ms. Moore's outstanding performance is exactly what it needs to give it a boost.
France, USA 2014
Cast Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish
Directors and screenwriters Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland; based on the novel Still Alice by Lisa Genova; cinematographer Denis Lenoir (colour); composer Ilan Eshkeri; designer Tommaso Ortino; costumes Stacey Battat; editor Nicolas Chaudeurge; producers Lex Lutzus, James Brown and Pamela Koffler; production companies BSM Studio and Lutzus/Brown in association with Killer Films, Big Indie Pictures and Shriver Films
Screened January 28th 2015, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon (distributor press screening)