Flashback to 1995 when a new actress named Julianne Moore was beginning to get noticed for her work in the Todd Haynes film “Safe,” where she played an affluent Southern California suburbanite who becomes afflicted with a mysterious environmental illness. Some 20 years and four Oscar nominations later, Moore finally picked up the best actress award this year for her work in a very similar role in the film “Still Alice.”

It’s a nice comparison, not because it shows us how far Moore has come, but rather how good she already was back then, and how she’s never lost it over the years. In both “Safe” and “Still Alice,” Moore plays the type of woman who has it all, but in completely different registers: “Still Alice” sees her as a completely fulfilled woman, both domestically and professionally, who’s stricken with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, and gradually fades to a blank, a shell of the woman she once was; then there’s “Safe,” where Moore starts as a blank, a housewife who seems no deeper than her choice of living room curtains, for whom the illness becomes a search for meaning and identity, one that she never successfully concludes.

Both films, however, show her as an actress completely unafraid of carrying a film on her close ups, one who knows exactly when to play it for tragedy, all anguish and despair, and exactly when to dial it down, to tune into that zone of unknowability, where the viewer does the work, trying to figure out where she’s at, what she’s feeling. There’s that inherent tension in her looks, the strength imparted by that angular jaw and cheeks, yet a fragility contained in her porcelain skin, that moment when she lets her features drop.

Still Alice
Director Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland
Run Time 101 minutes
Language English
Opens June 27

Is this a love letter to Julianne? If so, Lord knows she deserves one. A quick glance at her vast filmography and you’ll find some of the best American cinema of the last two decades: “Boogie Nights,” “The Big Lebowski,” “Short Cuts,” “The Hours,” “Children of Men.” And while it may seem a minor point, stop for a second and think about how few redheads have made it to Hollywood’s top.

Moore is without doubt the best thing in “Still Alice,” which is a rather conventional issue film wrapped around her stunning performance. She plays a university academic in her 50s who’s at the peak of her career when she learns that the spells of forgetfulness she’s been suffering turn out to be Alzheimer’s; worse still, it’s a genetically inherited disease, and she faces the question of how to break this news to her children. The supporting cast — Alec Baldwin as her husband, Kate Bosworth as her elder daughter — are all pretty blah, with only Kristen Stewart, playing her younger daughter, rising to the occasion, and bringing some real emotional depth to the role.

The terrifying nature of this disease, that you lose both your memories and your very sense of who you are, and your relations to the people you love, is communicated effectively; most painful is a scene where the still lucid Moore makes a video to her future self, instructing her on how to end her life, anticipating accurately the misery and despair she will wind up in. The problem is, that the disease creeps up so insidiously, it may rob her of that choice before she has a chance to make it. The film’s tension hangs on whether she will find that video and act on it.

What endures after memory is gone? That’s the question “Still Alice” asks, and to its credit, by the ending scene, it leaves you with a heart-rending answer.

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