If you've heard that the main reason to see this film is the performance of Julianne Moore in the title role (now rewarded with an Oscar), then you have been rightly informed. She is amazing, while the film is no better than good enough.
Alice is a very smart 50 year old linguistics professor (irony alert), with a fellow academic (Alec Baldwin) for a husband, and three grown up children, one of whom – Kristen Stewart – is a bit of a worry to her. Alice has started having moments which have led her to doubt that all is well. She forgets a word in the middle of a lecture. While out jogging she loses all sense of where she is, despite being just outside the building where she teaches. Baldwin tells her that all older people have such episodes, but she knows that this is different.
Her neurologist confirms her fears. She has early onset Alzheimers, both rare and genetic. In other words, she inherited it and may have passed it on to her children. It's about as bad as it could get. And then we watch her gradual descent into the full blown illness, gradually forgetting everything, even who her children are, while trying to cling on to fragments of who she thought she used to be.
She composes a message to her future, more damaged self, designed to save her from the worst of what is coming. She manages to give a talk to other sufferers and health professionals, using a technique that makes it possible for her to follow her own train of thought. And she tells her husband (and therefore us) that she wishes she had cancer. Cancer is a disease that people understand and therefore can offer sympathy and kindness. What she has just makes her appear stupid, and there's no way of explaining to people that she simply can't remember most things, and that it's her brain that is falling apart.
The film is pretty much a vehicle for Julianne Moore, with the others as (mostly kind) bystanders watching a slow motion car crash which they're unable to understand or help with. That's not a criticism. Without Moore, I doubt the film would have made it to cinemas. It has no pretensions to being anything other than a thoughtful and kindly story about the horrors of an illness that – as yet – remains untreatable and whose symptoms, as Alice says, are so cruel for both the sufferer and those around her.
I'm glad Moore won the Oscar. She's been a wonderful actress for many years, nearly always opting to appear in films which are some way from the big noisy mainstream. Her performance is heartbreaking, as we follow her path down to a complete loss of self. The weaknesses of the film – it lacks any serious aesthetic sense and chugs along in an uncomplicated straight line – allow Moore to give her best. It's not a film that will leave you feeling any better about the prospect of ageing, but it may help you deepen a sense of compassion.
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