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On Still Alice, and mothers

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posted by Mark Liddell alias Mark Liddell on Monday 16th of March 2015 01:44:49 PM

(Spoiler warning for the film's ending) I've found, as I get older, that it takes increasingly less to make me cry at movies – my theory being that the accumulation of real life experience correlates to an empathy for fictionalised narratives to which we couldn’t previously relate. Having said that, there are still only a handful of films I’d describe as truly devastating, and those that fit the description generally share one of two themes. The first is animals – my love thereof being no great secret. (A friend once asked if I wanted to rent Hachi, and I responded by saying that I wasn’t in the mood: the truth being that a) films where the animal protagonists don’t survive past the end credits utterly destroy me and b) I’d teared up just watching the trailer two days earlier.) The second – more human – theme is that of mothers. As the product of a single-parent household, there are few things that offend me more than the notion that a child needs two parents (of either gender) for healthy development, and, once I’d reached an age where the option became available to me, I ceased contact with my father altogether. In consequence of having been raised by mum alone, however, we have a closeness for which I am unendingly grateful; and trading an additional parent for the woman who remains one of my favourite people in the world is an exchange I would make time and time again. (Indeed, half the arguments we had growing up were, upon reflection, a consequence of us being more or less the same person: my strong-mindedness (read: stubbornness) and self-assurance (/inability to admit when I’m wrong) being among the more charming traits I’ve inherited.) Now, going into Still Alice last week, I had high expectations. I’m a long-time fan of Julianne Moore, and knew she’d secured the Oscar for Best Actress before the film had even premiered here in the UK (an accolade I chose to have faith in despite Patricia Arquette winning Best Supporting for Boyhood, which I consider a feat of technical filmmaking vs. acting or storytelling). I was not, however, prepared for the degree to which the film moved me, and as people slowly filed out of the cinema around us, it was all I could to do stay seated throughout the end credits until I could recover enough to stop crying. The film’s theme is, of course, grave – the subject of early-onset Alzheimer’s is hardly the makings of a light-hearted comedy. Dr. Alice Howland (played to devastating effect by Moore) is a linguistics professor who, she tells us, has “always been so defined by my intellect, my language, my articulation, and now sometimes I can see the words hanging in front of me and I can’t reach them and I don’t know who I am and I don’t know what I’m going to lose next.” It’s a disease that strips Alice of the traits that form the very basis of her self-identity. This loss of her sense of self – and the bitter irony that the accelerated decline in Alice’s condition owes, in part, to her erstwhile superior intellect – is difficult to watch: scenes of Alice pre-emptively visiting a nursing home and seeing the fate that awaits her reflected in people vastly beyond her age; of the shame she feels after failing to find the bathroom in her own home; the emotional breakdown when she finally reveals her condition to her husband, and sobs that “it feels like my brain is fucking dying. And everything I’ve worked for in my entire life is going. It’s all going.” It’s heartbreaking. But the true heart of the movie lies, for me, in Alice’s relationship with her youngest daughter, Lydia (played by Kristen Stewart in a role for which the internet at large probably owes her a collective apology after the Twilight series). Though their relationship is, at times, strained (foremost by Alice’s misgivings over Lydia’s choice of an acting career without a solid basis in education) the bond they ultimately develop over the course of the movie is a beautiful one; the child she least understands becoming the one who understands her most. The film’s final scene is, at face value, devastating – Lydia reads to Alice from a play they had discussed months earlier while her mother was still in command of her faculties, and Alice – finally in the full grip of her condition – responds seemingly incomprehensibly. But it contains within it an echo of the speech the once-brilliant Alice gave in the film’s opening moments, where she noted that, “Most children speak and understand their mother tongue before they turn four, without lessons, homework, or much in the way of feedback. How do they accomplish this remarkable feat? Well this is a question that has interested scientists at least since Charles Darwin kept a diary of the early language of his infant son. He observed, ‘Man has an instinctive tendency to speak, as we see in the babble of our young children.’” After Lydia has finished reading, she asks her mother, “Hey, did you like that? What I just read, did you like it? Wh-what…what was it about?” “Love,” Alice answers. And though her mother has been reduced to a state where she can only communicate through childlike babble, we feel that Alice can still comprehend – on some level – Lydia’s devotion to her. “Yeah, mom,” she responds. “It was about love.” In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Still Alice could easily have been a schmaltzy, Lifetime Movie affair like My Sister’s Keeper or The Notebook – reliant on musical cues and manipulative sentimentality to tell the viewer where and when to feel. Still Alice favours a quiet dignity, like that of its protagonist, and of the film’s co-writer and director, Richard Glatzer, who made this movie – ultimately to be his last – whilst battling motor neuron disease. The film’s lasting message is of endurance, even in the face of inevitability — and of love. (Dundee, 2014) Facebook | Twitter | Tumblr | Website

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