Here’s something you don’t hear reviewers say very often: I have no idea what I thought of the film I just watched.
I was sceptical before Still Alice (the 2014 film starring Julianne Moore as an Alzheimer’s-suffering academic) even started. Read that description again. If that’s not an “awards-bait” synopsis I don’t know what is.
Hell, this was the role in which Moore won the Academy Award for Best Actress, in the same year Eddie Redmayne won Best Actor for his role as Stephen Hawking in Theory of Everything. And I’ve already made it clear what I thought of that.
And yet, I kind of liked it?
The two main performances were excellent. Julianne Moore rightly received plenty of the praise (and the aforementioned award), and she was duly excellent. It’s one of those roles that could be really in-your-face and ham-fisted, but here was played with a deftness and subtlety; a person struggling with suffering from an awfully debilitating illness deep down and occasionally letting it rise to the surface.
I know I’ve ragged on Redmayne and Theory of Everything before, but this is exactly what that film was missing. With Julianne Moore in Still Alice, you get to know the character. She’s not the most three-dimensional, but she has feelings, hopes and dreams. She wants things to happen, and reacts to situations like a human being. I may not have been hanging on Moore’s every word, but I at least kind of cared about her. I can’t say any of the above for Theory of Everything.
Alec Baldwin deserves credit too. Despite being in the middle of a 30 Rock marathon and therefore finding it hard to take him all that seriously, his performance as Alice’s husband brought almost as much to the film as Moore. Sure, she is the one suffering from this awful, awful disease, but the impact it has on those around her has to be pretty staggering in itself.
The best part, however, is in the visuals. Given the subject matter, it would have been easy to use pretty standard framing techniques, knowing that the attached names and Oscar-y plot would be enough to draw people in and perhaps win an award.
Instead, what we get is one of the more creative, understated and intelligent ways to present a story like this I can remember.
As Alice becomes disorientated, the background becomes fuzzy, the framing off kilter. The camera starts to spin a little, and you lose the base of where we are and what we’re supposed to be focusing on. It’s a minor touch, and one you might not even notice, but it’s things like this that allow the audience to feel what Alice is going through, rather than just watch it happen.
So why didn’t I enjoy it more?
One of the most frustrating things for me about the film was that of her three children. One of them is intensely dislikeable and disappears, one is hardly in it at all, and the other is played by Kristen Stewart. Ouch.
I understand why Stewart worked in the Twilight films. She’s essentially a half-filled balloon on a broomstick, with a face drawn in Sharpie. She has no discernible skill, charisma or personality, and is therefore perfect to be a mannequin in which the audience can project themselves. There is so little to her they can totally imagine they are in her shoes, having to choose between Robert Pattison and Taylor Lautner. That’s fine. Sometimes that’s what’s needed.
Put her in an “acting” role, though, and you’re asking for trouble. Put her in an “acting” role in which her character is an “actor”, and ho boy, you’re in for a good time.
The absolute, 100% best moment of the whole film is when her character is in a theatre production. Throughout the film, Alice has been trying to convince her daughter to give up on acting and get another plan, like going back to school (because ????). After a while, Stewart is cast in a play, and they go to see her.
Stewart sits on the stage with two others and she’s really, really acting.
“Oh man” I think to myself. “This is a twist I didn’t see coming. The reason Alice has been pressuring her daughter is that she can’t actually act. That’s a pretty unique approach to something like this, one that I haven’t really seen in this type of film”.
Suddenly, Stewart starts to well up, tears forming in her eyes as the audience looks on in awe-inspired wonder.
“Oh, never mind. That was just Kristen Stewart trying to act”.
And then the play ends (why do theatre performances in films always end on a powerful, one person monologue?) and the crowd erupts in to a standing ovation for the performance. This is the first of two standing ovations in the movie.
This might seem like a minor complaint, but standing ovations in films are the dirt worst. It’s the ultimate example of telling, rather than showing. The film goes to such great lengths to provide a visually stimulating, unique way to make you feel for the titular character, and then throws it in to a petrol-covered bonfire by having the fake audience stand up and applaud because THAT WAS JUST SO DAMN EMOTIONAL, DAMN IT. Fictional standing ovations are shorthand for “look, this is emotional and/or powerful, and you’re just going to have to trust me on this”. It’s awkward, forced, and makes me resent a movie regardless of its quality.
To have two is nothing short of lazy.
In fact, I’d suggest that the combination of two standing ovations and Kristen Stewart is enough to make me write absolutely any film off. Then the film just ends, with no resolution, all the other characters just disappear from the story, no-one has anything evenly remotely resembling a character-arc, and the films ends with another Kristen Stewart monologue.
But here’s the Shyamalan twist.
What if everything I’ve mentioned above was intentional? What if the lack of an ending, and the disappearing/non-existent children was not the sign of a poorly written, awards bait-y mess, but instead a bold, stylistic choice?
The ending at first feels abrupt and unrewarding. We’ve followed Alice for nearly two hours as her disease has gradually overcome her, her condition deteriorating until she can barely string sentences together. Kirsten Stewart rehearses another role by reading her mother a monologue (can I use the vomiting gif again?), Alice tries to say the word “love” (seriously, I want to use that gif) and then (spoiler alert) it ends.
But when you think about it, this is probably kind of how it feels for Alice. Having spent so much of the film getting disorientated along with her, it now just fades to white. We’re unable to process why it ended there, or what was the point of ending a film with Oscar aspirations on a monologue from the gormless-looking lead actress from Twilight. That’s probably Alice’s experience as well.
When you factor in that her children just fade in to the background (apart from Stewart, unfortunately), completely disappearing from the story despite how much potential their stories have, this feels like this could be the case. We lose touch with what is real and what is going on around us, just as she does.
If this is intentional, and not just rubbish writing, then that is sensational.
I just can’t be sure which it is.
Still Alice Rating: Two standing ovations out of five.