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20 February 2015

"Mastering the Art of Losing"

I hadn't heard of Lisa Genova's 2007 novel Still Alice until awards season rolled around last year and Julianne Moore picked up a whole host of nominations for her performance as the titular Alice in Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's film adaptation. Genova is a neuroscientist-turned-writer and Still Alice tells the story of a brilliant 50-year-old psycholinguistics professor who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease.

I wanted to read the novel before watching the movie, and I thought Genova's work was a powerful, moving and thoughtful depiction of what it really feels like to experience such a terrible disease. The film was good too and Moore's nominations are richly deserved — she will almost certainly win the Oscar this weekend — as her portrayal is by turns sensitive and multi-layered, inspiring and heartbreaking.

The movie opens with Alice celebrating her 50th birthday with her husband and fellow scientist John (Alec Baldwin), and two of their three grown children, Anna (Kate Bosworth) and Tom (Hunter Parrish — whom I still haven't forgiven for what he did to Will Gardner in The Good Wife) in a New York restaurant. It is a celebratory moment and Alice, at the top of her academic game and with a loving family, is very happy. Soon, though, she finds herself forgetting things. While giving a talk, she can't remember the word 'lexicon' — pretty crucial for a linguist — and before long, the 'thingies' become more common and when she gets lost in the middle of her university campus, she realises that she has to go to see a doctor.

After a barrage of tests, early-onset Alzheimer's is the diagnosis she is given and she is baffled and devastated. She tries to hide it from her family at first, but eventually, she lets John in on the news and, once it is confirmed that she has the familial version, they decide to tell their children. Anna and Tom — a sensible lawyer and doctor — want to get tested to see whether they have the implicated genetic mutation, but the youngest, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), the rebel of the family and an aspiring actress, decides not to.

The decline, then, manages to be both achingly slow and all too rapid. In the book, this time lapse is expressed more clearly — the film feels faster. And it's Moore with her heart-wrenching sobs who carries the whole film. "It feels like my brain is fucking dying," she cries, becoming increasingly frustrated as ever simpler tasks become too challenging. "I wish I had cancer," she says on another occasion. People understand cancer, she explains, and aren't embarrassed by it. Later, in a slightly more accepting frame of mind, Alice quotes Elizabeth Bishop: "The art of losing isn't hard to master." And that is the key to the film, because it is damn hard to master the art of losing your faculties, losing your life and losing your self. It's a devastating thing.

If you think Mark Wahlberg makes an unconvincing English professor in The Gambler, wait until you see Alec Baldwin as the most implausible cancer cell biology PI you have ever seen. To be fair, the film keeps the science on the sidelines and Baldwin does play a convincing husband here. You can feel his pain, anger and frustration as he watches the wife he has loved for decades slip away from him slowly. Stewart, to my surprise, also performed well as the renegade daughter who comes home when it counts the most. The older children don't have a lot to do other than act sad and grumpy.

Overall, I still preferred the book, but the film is well done. There is a high probability that you will cry, although there are also more uplifting elements to it. There are a few changes in the transition to the big screen — the setting has moved from Harvard, Cambridge, to Columbia, New York, and the characters have ditched their BlackBerries in favour of iPhones, Skype and FaceTime for the film.

One of the things I found most fascinating about the story was that Alice is a linguistics professor — naturally, this is of interest to a former linguistics student, but for someone like Alice for whom language and communication is so utterly central, the prospect of losing even a tiny amount of ability must be a truly terrifying notion. For a good explanation of the genetics of Alzheimer's disease, the US National Institute on Aging has a good factsheet.

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