Julianne Moore finally won an Oscar for her stunning performance in this heartbreaking film based on the best-selling novel by Lisa Genova about a happily married 50-year-old linguistics professor with three grown children who is one day diagnosed with early on-set Alzheimer’s disease. She finds her life torn apart and her family bonds tested as the callous illness slowly takes hold.
Many films dealing with a debilitating illness often go the objective route of purely showing the symptoms from an onlooker’s perspective, not really getting under the skin of the condition, so to speak. Still Alice takes a far more subjective, emotionally stirring route and does what few, if any, other films about Alzheimer’s do in that it tries to convey what it actually feels like to suffer from it. It never shies away from the realities the situation presents but at the time never tips over into crass and obvious manipulation.
At the heart of the film is, of course, Moore and she elevates it into a stature of importance. She gives a nuanced, raw, sincere performance in an extremely difficult balancing act of a role that could have been mawkish or overly showy in the hands of a lesser talented actress. She runs the gamut of emotions needed, capturing as much in the bigger moments which sees the illness really take its toll on her daily life with her family – a scene where she doesn’t make it to the toilet in time after forgetting where it’s located is particularly heart-rending – as she does in the more subtle scenes earlier on when she may just forget a word or two in the middle of a sentence. It’s a prime example of how one actor and one performance can make a film and it simply wouldn’t be as emotionally devastating without her at the centre of it.
That’s not, however, to say that she’s the only reason it works on a performance level as there’s great supporting work from the likes of Alec Baldwin as her loving husband struggling to cope with what’s happening to his beloved wife and the increasingly impressive Kristen Stewart, continuing to prove she’s more than just the some of her Twilight years. There’s a sincerity and thoughtfulness to all of the performances and the film as a whole (something that could be explained by the fact that its co-director, Richard Glatzer, is currently living with ALS) that makes it more than just the TV movie-of-the-week that its plot and its heavenly glowing visual aesthetic might otherwise suggest.
As with any film about a particular illness, it’s obviously going to resonate more with those who have been in some way affected by it in their own lives. But directly familiar with the effects of the disease or not, it’s a supremely moving, admirably forthright and genuinely heartbreaking film that treats its subject matter with both the honesty and sensitivity that it deserves.