Subtracting the self
Robert Henderson is impressed by a harrowing depiction of dementia
Julianne Moore as Alice Howland
Alec Baldwin as John Howland
Kristen Stewart as Lydia Howland
Kate Bosworth as Anna Howland-Jones
Hunter Parrish as Tom Howland
Shane McRae as Charlie Jones
Stephen Kunken as Benjamin
Directors: Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
I am decidedly wary of films that revolve around disability because they all too often dive into a morass of self-conscious sentimentality. Still Alice avoids this fate because of the excellence of Moore’s performance and the often selfish and neglectful behaviour of her family, although, sadly, there is a sentimental ending wholly out of keeping with the rest of the film.
Alice (Julianne Moore) is a professor of linguistics at Columbia University who finds her self struggling with her memory and concentration. At first it is just the odd word or name that escapes her, something that happens to all of us as we get older. But soon she is forgetting appointments and social occasions, finding herself disoriented in familiar surroundings and being unable to lecture coherently. She meets people then a few minutes later has forgotten that she has met them. Worried, she sees a specialist and finds that she has early onset Alzheimer’s.
From that point onwards Alice stumbles ever further into a world that is increasingly both incomprehensible and unmanageable. At first she devises strategies such as writing three or four words on a board and then covering it up for a time before trying to remember what she has written. She gives a talk to the Alzheimer’s Society that she is only able to do by highlighting each sentence as she speaks it to tell her what she has already said. She puts questions about people she knows such as their names and relationships on her phone and tries to answer them. But these exercises and stratagems become increasingly redundant as time passes and we watch a personality shrinking as faculties are remorseless subtracted from her.
The diagnosis adds a further complication: Alice has a form of Alzheimer’s that is hereditary. She has three adult children, one of whom is pregnant with twins. Her eldest daughter, Anna (Kate Bosworth), tests positive for the Alzheimer’s gene; her unborn twins test negative, as does her doctor son Tom. Alice’s youngest daughter, aspiring actor Lydia (Kristen Stewart) refuses to have the test.
While Alice still has most of her marbles she tries to prepare for the time when she will not be able to look after herself. Under the pretence that she is looking for a place for her father she visits a retirement home which specialises in dementia cases to get an idea of what the future will hold and comes away dismayed by what she sees, a host of people defrocked of their dignity and purpose. Perhaps prompted by this dismal future she leaves a message for herself on her computer giving her future self instructions about what to do when she can no longer answer questions such as “Who is your eldest daughter?” These instructions consist of telling her where to find a bottle of pills (which will kill her if they are all taken in one go) and to swallow the lot.
As her state worsens Alice forgets the recording giving her the instructions to kill her self, but inadvertently clicks on the computer file containing it when she is already well advanced in the decline of her mental powers. She makes several abortive starts to find the pills because she keeps forgetting the instructions to find them. Eventually Alice finds the bottle, but just as she is about to take the pills someone returns to the house and the sound of them causes her to spill them onto the floor. The interruption causes her to forget why she was holding the pills and her chance of escape from an increasingly undignified existence is lost without her even knowing that it existed.
Alice’s family are not outrageously unsympathetic, but most of them display a greater concern for their own lives which leads them to behave selfishly in the face of Alice’s growing needs. Her husband John, a medical research scientist is negotiating a deal with the Mayo Clinic and eventually leaves his wife to take up a post a couple of hundred miles away, the elder daughter Anna is preoccupied with her pregnancy and the youngest daughter Lydia displays the selfishness and lack of patience of a moody teenager, although in the end she returns to look after her mother.
The acting is uniformly good with Moore unreservedly first rate in her portrayal of someone shrinking from a confident adulthood to something less than a child. Just by her facial expressions she manages to give the impression as the film progresses of a mind becoming less and less functional until at the end there is little left other than vacancy. It is a remarkable feat of acting.
It might be objected that by concentrating on a high performing individual the film misrepresents, even in a strange way glamorises Alzheimer’s, because someone like Alice seems to have more to lose than most dementia sufferers, her diminishing to be of greater consequence. This strikes me as a complaint without substance. It is true that the vast majority of Alzheimer’s patients will be people without any special intellectual distinction and perhaps the classic patient will be someone who is poor with little education, but there are plenty of people in Alice’s situation, Iris Murdoch being a recent famous example. Alice is not an anomaly in the world of Alzheimer’s. Moreover, perhaps there is something more tragic about someone like Alice because she has a dimension to lose in addition to that of the common run of humanity.
If the film has a weakness it is the heavy handed over egging of the poignancy of Alice’s situation. Her background story is just too facile, containing as it does the grand and obvious irony that someone who knows so much about the workings of language is being stripped of that knowledge and in the end of language itself. I think it would have been better if she had been an historian. The irony of her position would have still been telling but more subtle and probably more apt, because she would have been a woman whose life involved knowing a great deal of the past having that knowledge eroded to nothing.
Then there is the making of the disease Alice carries hereditary. Alzheimer’s can be inherited but the odds in real life are very much against it, with perhaps 5% of cases involving heredity. By introducing the chance of the disease being carried by the children the focus is unnecessarily moved away from Alice’s plight that is all that really matters here.
But these are quibbles when placed in the context of the general excellence of the film.
ROBERT HENDERSON is QR’s film critic