Sunday, 8 March 2015

Film Review: Still Alice

Still Alice is a film based on a novel of the same title by Lisa Genova. According to her Amazon page:
Lisa Genova is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Still Alice, Left Neglected, Love Anthony, and Inside the O'Briens. Lisa graduated valedictorian from Bates College with a degree in biopsychology and holds a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard University. She travels worldwide speaking about Alzheimer's Disease, traumatic brain injury, and autism. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.

At least from the professional point of view, the book and subsequently the film, seem to have an element of autobiography. I have not yet had the opportunity to read the novel, so cannot really consider the film in the light of the book.

If you haven't seen the film yet, beware - the review that follows includes some key plot spoilers.

When Zero and I saw it yesterday, representatives of the film makers were asking viewers of the film to fill out response questionnaires after the film. I do not know if this is a common practice, but it is the first time I have encountered it. So far as I could tell, the response rate was very high, and cinema goers seemed to be taking considerable care over their responses. The film review at SIGNIS captures something of the kind of sense as you see this film (and I do think it is a film to see at the cinema rather than at home):
It was extraordinary the silence in the cinema as people, we together, watched Still Alice. What were we thinking, what were we feeling? Were we identifying with Alice personally, the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease, the fact that she was only 50, that she was a world-class academic and expert on linguistics and was suffering deterioration in her deepest talent? Were we thinking about relatives or friends with Alzheimer’s, trying to appreciate the condition, their feelings? Had we had some experience of care for a person with Alzheimer’s or was this a prospect to come? Watching the film was certainly a personal, sad, even draining experience.   
There is an aspect of the experience of Alzheimer's shown in the film that it is easy to miss. The experience being portrayed is not that of someone now in their 80's or 90's, whose early life memories would reach back to the 1930's and 1940's, when the lap top computer would have been beyond imagination. Instead, it is the experience of someone who has been young in our own lifetimes, an experience likely to be ours of the future, rather than the experience of the older generation of today. It would be interesting, too, to reflect on whether a similar film made in an attempt to portray the experience of a man would show a significantly different experience. I suspect that it might.

I may have missed them, but I was struck by the way in which the film did not seem to portray the strategies that a family or friends might use when living with and helping to support an Alzheimer's sufferer.

In focussing on the figure of Alice, one can lose sight of the experience of family members and professional colleagues that is shown in the film. A scene where Alice's department head reads the negative feedback from students who have been attending her lectures, and only then learns of her Alzheimer's, though the students have been adversely affected by it for all of the preceding semester, is telling in this regard. The impact on family members is portrayed at different points throughout the film, though it is useful to consciously notice it rather than just seeing it as part of the narrative of Alice's experience. At the level of the acting performances, a similar comment can be made. Julianne Moore's Oscar winning performance as Alice is framed by outstanding performances from Kristen Steward, Alex Baldwin and Kate Bosworth.

Still Alice is full of moving moments. The scene where Alice and John tell their children that Alice has Alzheimer's, and that it is a hereditary form comes first. Both within the narrative of the film and in the mind of the viewer, it is a scene that asks the question: how do we cope with looking forward to possibly struggling with Alzheimer's later in our lives? This foreknowledge is perhaps part of the experience of our generation in a way that was not true for earlier generations.

A second key scene is where Alice speaks to a conference of Alzheimer's care givers. The speech in this section of the film represents a kind of manifesto in favour of those who struggle with Alzheimer's - "struggle" being the word chosen rather than "suffer". Part of that speech features in the end of the trailer that can be found embedded in the Telegraph online review. I was particularly struck by Alice's choice to talk about struggling with slowly losing everything that had previously been part of her life and of her connection to life around her (this is why I think this is a film to see with others in a cinema rather than in isolation on a small screen).

Next is the scene where Alice's daughter asks her to describe what it feels like and Alice, in a moment of lucidity, does so.

And the final scene where, after her daughter has read to her a long passage, Alice responds to the daughter's asking that "It's about love" (it wasn't). Since this comes after the daughter has returned home to care for her mother, it is very poignant.

Without giving an answer either way, the film asks whether it would be better for someone to die rather than struggle with Alzheimer's. At a relatively early point in the film, Alice says to her husband that she would rather have cancer than Alzheimer's, with the husband replying "Don't say that". Alice also records a movie on her laptop giving instructions about how to take an overdose once she has reached the point where she cannot remember her family. In an intensely dramatic moment, she later accidentally opens this movie and starts to follow its instructions (her memory is so impaired that she has to take the laptop upstairs to the bedroom cabinet in order to follow the instructions one at a time). The arrival of her carer at the last minute saves Alice's life. And shortly before the end of the film, Alice is asked by her husband in an ice cream parlour whether or not she still wants to be here. At this point, Alice can only understand the question in terms of the ice cream parlour, and the fact that she has not yet finished her ice cream - very sad but also very informative of the possibility of consent to assisted suicide at that point in the disease.

It is a film to see, but do take tissues.

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