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Friday, 10 April 2015

Still Alice – and Richard, Too!

I was wrong.

Still.Alice.CoverI could have sworn that Iris – the biopic of the British novelist, Iris Murdoch – was released after Away From Her, a film version of  Canadian Alice Munro’s short story, The Bear Came Over the Mountain.

But no!  Iris, starring Judi Dench as the ace wordsmith came five years before Julie Christie played Fiona Anderson in Sarah Polley’s version of Munro’s tale.

Both deal with female dementia and I must confess first, that I hated Polley’s film, finding it wooden, meandering, sluggish and wholly self-absorbed. This is what happens when a full-length drama is made of a tightly constructed piece of prose.

On the other hand, I considered Dench’s portrayal of Murdoch to be intelligent and compassionate and suggest that as we now know that Dench’s increasingly poor eyesight forces  her to learn her lines by heart, this must  help to ward off anything associated with memory loss.

But this piece is about Still Alice,  the latest fictionalised drama about a woman suffering dementia. However it is different from its predecessors as it looks at someone aged barely fifty who discovers she’s developed ‘early—onset’ Alzheimer's disease.

It is generally thought that fewer men than women suffer the condition as women live longer. But a patient like ‘Dr. Alice Howland’ (Oscar winning Julianne Moore) belies both statistics and warnings about maintaining a healthy lifestyle as the character has a fine intellect and is enviably fit and good-looking.

The film is based on a novel, this time by someone with professional knowledge. Lisa Genova is a neuroscientist and while cynics may observe that it was almost certain she would make her protagonist an expert in linguistics, I must remind them that Iris Murdoch’s entire professional Julianne.Moorelife revolved around words while another famous fictional example of a woman developing Alzheimer’s is in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, whose anti-heroine ‘Briony Tallis’ becomes a successful novelist who develops vascular dementia.

Still Alice is a terrific production for many reasons: The acting and direction are beyond reproach. The story is strong, never mawkish; it shows that dementia does not depend on an individual’s original intellect and it charts a firm, unyielding path through the patient’s illness. So to those viewers who may observe that it concludes too abruptly, I suggest that it is because those making the movie knew where and when to draw the line. It made me cry more than once. Enough!

Richard.GlatzerDespite that, the real tale behind the film is not the one written by Genova but the reality of its scriptwriter and director, Richard Glatzer. He was suffering from Lou Gehrig's Disease, a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that affects nerve cells in the brain and he died on March 10 2015, only sixteen days after Moore won her Academy Award for Best Actress.

After his death, aged 63, The Hollywood Reporter revealed that Glatzer and his husband, Wash Westmoreland had begun work on Still Alice soon after the diagnosis. “Still, he never missed a day of filming. At the end, Glatzer was able to ‘speak’ only by tapping the big toe of his right foot on a specially designed iPad. Glatzer and Westmoreland met in 1995 and married in 2013”.

© Natalie Wood (10 April 2015)

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