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A Lead Performance Keeps 'Still Alice' Grounded

Julianne Moore plays Alice Howland, a linguistics professor diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease.
Linda Kallerus
Sony Pictures Classics
Julianne Moore plays Alice Howland, a linguistics professor diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease.

A circumstance that might well qualify as a fate worse than death is to continue living after one side of the human equation — body + mind — has been canceled. For a jaunty account of an active brain in a withering physique, see The Theory of Everything; for a more anguished view of the opposite situation, there's Still Alice.

The story opens, with chilling chronological precision, at the 50th-birthday party of Alice Howling (Julianne Moore). The milieu is upscale intellectual Manhattan, nearly as perfect as the family living in it. Husband John (Alec Baldwin) is a medical researcher at Columbia University, where Alice also teaches. Daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth) is married and laboring to produce the couple's first grandchild; son Tom (Hunter Parrish) is nearly a doctor. Only the youngest, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), has wandered off the accepted path, skipping college — and mom's birthday — to attempt an acting career in LA.

We will come to have some sympathy for Lydia, if only because she's a rumple, however small, in a overly tidy scenario. Alice can't simply be a 50-year-old who experiences disturbing lapses of memory. When she begins to forget words, it's while lecturing in her specialty: linguistics.

Many of such details come from Lisa Genova's best-selling novel, which directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have adapted with reasonable fidelity. The two men, longtime artistic and life partners, have a personal interest in the subject of bodies and brains that age at different speeds: Glatzer has ALS and now speaks via a computer's voice synthesizer.

As its choice of pronoun indicates, Sarah Polley's Away from Her considered early-onset Alzheimer's from the perspective of a man who watches his wife's consciousness disappear. Still Alice takes a riskier strategy, attempting to show its protagonist's experience from the inside. Glatzer and Westmoreland picked the right actress for the job.

When Alice first gets the verdict from a neurologist, the camera focuses only on her face, in one uninterrupted take. (The superb cinematography is by Denis Lenoir, who shot Olivier Assayas' Carlos.) This strategy is repeated again and again, until Alice finally — and literally — vanishes. The movie isn't interested in what the woman leaves behind, only in the process of her dissolution.

Contemporary technology helps with this. Alice has ongoing conversations with her husband (whose coldness Baldwin fails to make believable) and her children (especially Lydia, who surprises). But many of her dialogues are with her own smartphone. As if turning an old Bob Newhart routine into tragedy, Alice prompts herself with prerecorded questions, testing what she's forgotten and can possibly remember.

Perhaps most important, she uses the device to leave instructions for her future self: a step-by-step guide to suicide. This plan imbues the story with intense foreboding, but also an element of farce. Alice may or may not be mentally capable of killing herself when the time comes, adding uncertainty to a narrative that is in most regards inevitable.

Still Alice would be better if it didn't mirror the inevitability of Alice's decline with other predictable elements. Through Lydia, Alice is introduced to two plays, Chekhov's Three Sisters and Tony Kushner's Angels in America. Their borrowed themes echo a little too heavily. So do composer Ilan Eshkeri's tremulous violins, which ape Penderecki during Alice's most agitated moments.

As the filmmakers keep reminding us, Alice is a woman of words who is now losing them. But the movie's most expressive element is Moore's face, slowly moving from engagement, flecked with worry, to disconnection and blankness. As the memories evaporate, only that face is still Alice.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Jenkins reviews movies for NPR.org, as well as for , which covers the Washington, D.C., film scene with an emphasis on art, foreign and repertory cinema.