TORONTO – Julianne Moore has already had quite a year. In May, she surprised many by taking the Best Actress honor at the Cannes Film Festival for David Cronenberg”s “Map to the Stars.” On Monday night, “Still Alice” premiered at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival and it may feature one of the finest performances of her already illustrious career.
If you were to read a short synopsis of “Alice,” an adaptation of Lisa Genova”s 2007 novel, you might be slightly concerned. The film introduces us to Alice Howland, a Columbia University professor in linguistics who has balanced a successful career with a happy marriage and three grown children. She”s just turned 50, but notices that she”s starting to forget things. Specific words are dropping out of her mind. She”ll be in the middle of a lecture and forget a phrase or subject matter. Eventually she goes to a neurologist who reveals she has early onset Alzheimer”s. It”s rare for her age, but it”s a familial condition she likely inherited from a father she rarely saw in his later years. Rapidly deteriorating, Alice has to decide how she”ll live out the rest of her life knowing she”ll be a burden to the rest of her family.
In the hands of the wrong director(s), “Alice” could be overly melodramatic and laced with saccharine moments meant to force a happy ending. Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland won”t let that happen. The duo behind the critically acclaimed “Quinceañera” let the film's narrative unspool in as restrained a manner as possible. There are no unbelievable hysterics. There are no self-aware screaming matches. Instead, the focus is on Moore”s heartbreaking depiction of a woman slowly losing her focus, her memory and, to some extent, herself.
Moore”s performance here is reminiscent of her breakthrough role in Todd Haynes' “Safe” and her Oscar-nominated turn in Stephen Daldry”s “The Hours.” In each scene she peels a little bit more of Alice away as the emotional pain of the disease takes its toll. It is incredibly subtle work that has to have been painstakingly thought out. You only realize this, however, walking out of the theater. Moore won”t let you see her working behind the curtain.
Another Toronto debut, “The Theory of Everything,” has earned raves for Eddie Redmayne”s uncanny transformation into Stephen Hawking. Moore”s work here is just as transformative as Redmayne”s, but her arc is mental rather than physical. As anyone who has a relative or friend who has suffered from Alzheimer”s disease knows, the Alice we meet at the beginning of the film will not be the Alice we meet at the end. And because of that the film lives and dies on Moore”s portrayal. She succeeds smashingly.
Glatzer and Westmoreland put an accomplished ensemble around Moore to play Alice”s family including Alec Baldwin, Kate Bosworth, Kristen Stewart and Hunter Parrish. Stewart, as Alice”s youngest daughter, is the family member who seems to be affected by her mother”s deterioration the most (and earns the most screen time), but all of the actors clearly know they are there to support Moore. This is Alice”s story and no one else”s.
Below the line, cinematographer Denis Lenoir avoids the Hollywood sheen, instead composing a delicate and natural look. Ilan Eshkeri (“The Young Victoria”) deserves a special mention for his beautiful score that also avoids unnecessarily pulling the audience”s heartstrings.