For just over a year I’ve been a volunteer for the Alzheimer’s Society Dementia Friends campaign, which seeks to change attitudes, perceptions and behaviours in society towards the 850,000 people currently living with dementia in the UK. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. Last week I was immensely privileged and proud to attend a screening of the film Still Alice at 10 Downing Street along with 40-odd other volunteers and Alzheimer’s Society staff, where we also met the star of the film, Julianne Moore. I Reckon Still Alice is one of the most important films of recent times, and her performance perhaps the most authentic performance I’ve seen on-screen.
Still Alice is based on a novel by Lisa Genova and tells the story of a 50-year-old linguistics professor. She’s healthy, wealthy and wise. She has a close and loving family. She is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s.
SPOILER ALERT: much as I want you to read on, I’d much prefer you to watch the film spoiler-free. If you’re thinking of seeing the film, please do that first… thanks.
It’s not just forgetting where you left your keys…
Julianne Moore spoke to us in Downing Street and has spoken subsequently in interviews about how all her behaviours and events portrayed in the film came directly from the stories told to her by families living with dementia, and it certainly feels that way.
The indignities and horrors that Alice has to face escalate by degrees from lapsing on a word during a lecture to feeling lost while running through the campus where she teaches, from forgetting the bread pudding recipe she makes every Christmas to being unable to find the bathroom in her family’s holiday beach house.
At first she’s at least partly conscious of what’s happening to her, even if she can’t understand it. But what we knew as Alice gradually retreats and shrinks, mostly imperceptibly and over time, but in a way that strikes us like a hammer in a tremendous and upsetting scene towards the end of the film.
I’ve heard dementia described as a prolonged and ‘premature’ grieving experience, both for the person living with the disease, but also and especially for their carers and family. Just as the symptoms and progress of dementia are unique to each individual, it affects those carers and family members differently. Everybody loses something.
Alice’s husband (brilliantly played by Alec Baldwin) wants to support and help her, but is both caught up in his own career as well as feeling helpless to actually make a difference. Her elder daughter seems almost offended by it, as if it obstructs her own aspirations for their family. It’s the younger daughter, Lydia, who comes to the fore and deals with the loss most humanely.
Lydia is played wonderfully by Kristen Stewart. Her relationship with her mother Alice is utterly believable, from early arguments over her choice of career to the way she takes later responsibility for caring for Alice when her Father and older siblings seem unable or unwilling. She suffers some of the greatest shocks but bears them with admirable calm and sensitivity. Alice unwittingly reads Lydia’s diary and ‘innocently’ lets it slip later, but it’s clear that she doesn’t understand this betrayal, and Lydia has to stifle her upset in silence, realising that chastising Alice would help no-one. Months later, Lydia takes a leading role in a Chekhov play, but her triumph is deflated in a heartbreaking instant as her mother fails to recognise her after the performance.
It’s in the eyes…
I can’t praise Julianne Moore’s performance enough: it’s astonishing. Over 90 minutes of film she demonstrates the savage diminishing of her mind through mostly silent expressions, flickering glances and subtle gestures. At the start she is a highly functioning, very conscious and intelligent woman. When Alice first tells her husband she is filled with rage, screaming at the world in pain and frustration. Then she keeps careful track of her symptoms, playing memory games in the kitchen and recording important questions into her phone (what is the month of your birthday, what is your eldest daughter’s name). She hatches a deeply upsetting plan, recording a message to herself for when she can no longer answer these questions, that she should go to her bedroom drawers and take a bottle of pills…
this is very important… do not tell anyone what you are doing
Late in the film she accidentally stumbles upon the message, and it’s only then that we fully realise how far Alice has ‘gone’ from the start of the film. Her face, speech, movements are all fundamentally changed, diminished, and it’s a staggering feat of performance that we barely noticed the full scope of that before.
Not suffering, but struggling…
I Reckon there’s only one false scene in the film, which comes when Alice gives a public speech about living with dementia. We’re aware of her previous existence as a lecturer, and how precarious and difficult this task has become. So she and we both enter the scene with apprehension, and then the directors ramp this up by having her speech fall to the floor, sheets scattering. But somehow they are all collected in the correct order, and she completes the speech (The Art of Losing) in triumph. This felt hollow to me; it felt like this was the film’s BIG MESSAGE SCENE, and this is SO IMPORTANT that it couldn’t be jeopardised. That’s fair enough, but then don’t taunt the audience with a cheap trick to heighten the tension if you’re then going to ignore the consequences.
It’s about love…
I Reckon this film is so important because it truly dramatizes and depicts a human journey of living with dementia. It’s not exploitative or sentimental, there’s no tragic ending or miracle cure. But it shows how the most important aspect of everything, of humanity, is love. Alice’s childhood photos come alive with the memories of her (long-since-dead) teenage sister, she takes comfort in familiar surroundings – her kitchen, the beach.
I dreamed we were there. The plane leapt the tropopause, the safe air, and attained the outer rim, the ozone, which was ragged and torn, patches of it threadbare as old cheesecloth, and that was frightening. But I saw something that only I could see, because of my astonishing ability to see such things: Souls were rising, from the earth far below, souls of the dead, of people who had perished, from famine, from war, from the plague, and they floated up, like skydivers in reverse, limbs all akimbo, wheeling and spinning. And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles, and formed a web, a great net of souls, and the souls were three-atom oxygen molecules, of the stuff of ozone, and the outer rim absorbed them, and was repaired. Nothing’s lost forever. In this world, there’s a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead. At least I think that’s so.
In the beautiful final scene, Lydia reads this speech from her newest play Angels in America, written in rich prose with deep and complex imagery, to which Alice smiles and responds, barely managing a murmur, “it’s about love”. And it is, and so is Still Alice.
I Reckon everyone should see this film, because the number of people living with dementia will double in the next generation, and it’s important to understand what families living with dementia really undergo and feel, and how it is possible to live well with love in the moment. There is no cure yet, but there is still a massive stigma around this (and other) mental illnesses. If Still Alice can help open our society’s eyes a little wider, reduce the stigma by just a little, and help people live with love and kindness a little more, it will truly be an important work, and one for which we should all give thanks.