There’s literally nothing that’s more frightening than Alzheimer’s disease. The very thought of uncontrollably slipping away from yourself and your loved ones being forced to watch is a kind of torture that you don’t wish on anyone. Writer/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland and their spectacular leading lady Julianne Moore immerse you into this very real nightmare. Dr. Alice Howland (Moore) has it all. She’s a renowned tenured professor of linguistics in New York City; she’s happily married to researcher Dr. John Howland (Alec Baldwin) and their three children Lydia (Kristen Stewart), Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parrish) are pursuing their dream careers. When Alice begins to suffer from some lapses of memory, she goes to her doctor to investigate and is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease that’s hereditary.
Messer’s Glatzer and Westmoreland establish a peak for Alice’s life before the illness so that her fall to the stark reality of the illness and the reverberating impacts throughout her family feels farther down. The focus is squarely on Alice's perspective and it feels as if it slips literally and figuratively as her mental acuity declines. When you're looking from Alice's perspective, the crispness of the image begins to fray at the edges. When filmmakers Glatzer and Westmoreland put you in the shoes of those interacting with Alice you see the deft nuance of Ms. Moore's gaze to bounce from a loving familiarity to appraisal of a person or a space with an absence of thought or feeling. Messer’s Glatzer and Westmoreland want you to confront the uncomfortable helplessness of the disease and to know that those suffering are all too familiar with the reality that they cannot control their fate.
Ms. Moore's Alice is authentic in a way that's uncomfortable to recall. Imagining the towering intellect of Alice at her peak will only make you marvel further at Moore's ability to portray absence. There's a sequence where Alice delivers a speech at an alzheimer's research fund raiser that Ms. Moore must lean heavily on a written speech. Watching her reading that conveys a surprise at the words on the page, at the surprise that they are her words and a delivery of the words that resembles a child grasping joyfully at language is something feels like it should be studied.
The family is torn in two as Alice slips further away from herself. For John and Alice's daughter Anna there's a more selfish or pragmatic realistic perspective. Mr. Baldwin's John goes through his own stages of disbelief, but in a much more measured and experimental bent. It's a slighter and more reserved performance than you're used to from the larger than life bluster of The Departed, the absurdity of 30 Rock. Yet once he sees that his wife is only rarely glimpsed through the dark cloud, he knows that he must continue his life. Ms. Bosworth's Anna cannot help but be thinking about the ramifications of the disease for her life, especially because she's a soon to be mother. Ms. Bosworth bubbles with an uncontrollable resentment toward Alice.
The second half of the family comes in the Zen presence of Ms. Stewart's Lydia, a budding actor that's always butted heads with her mother pushing her toward academic life. Yet once her mother's newfound declining state she's the calm constant around the towering egos of her family. The more that her mother slips, the more she yearns to get in that torturously close proximity to glean whatever her is s left.
Still Alice is as powerful as it is crushing. Ms. Moore delivers a performance that will endure.
[rating=4] and a half
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
Written by: Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
Starring: Julianne Moore, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Alec Baldwin, Hunter Parrish