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My review of the film “Still Alice”

Still Alice

This evening, I asked someone living with dementia whether he recommended I should watch “Still Alice”. He is yet to see the film.

He emphatically said, “yes”. In fact, he informed me that he would indeed buy the film if he thought it was any good.

“Still Alice” is a 2014 American drama film written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland and based on Lisa Genova’s 2007 bestselling novel of the same name. The film stars Julianne Moore in the role of Dr. Alice Howland, a Columbia linguistics professor diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Alec Baldwin plays her husband John, an ambitious medical researcher. Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, and Hunter Parrish play her children Lydia, Anna, and Tom.

I was not looking forward to watching this film at all, despite its brilliant reviews. In a way, the film is in a ‘no win’ space of having not to over-glamourise dementia, and yet simultaneously not to depict it in overwhelmingly negative terms.

As someone who has been an academic and/or practitioner in this field since 1997, I really think the film is an excellent attempt at this very difficult topic.

No one person’s experience of dementia is the same as somebody else’s; and your perception of that person with dementia will depend on a huge number of factors, not least your own preconceptions and the coping strategies of the person living with dementia. The portrayal of Dr Alice Howland is completely believable though.

Dementia doesn’t just affect old people; although your risk of dementia increases as you become old.

The film is to be praised for emphatically demonstrating that the diagnosis of dementia affects friends and families, and not simply a person in isolation. Whilst the character Dr Alice Howland is initially told the possible diagnosis alone, it is clear that the whole family becomes involved.

There is a sense of the ‘prescribed disengagement’ which Kate Swaffer, living with dementia in Australia, has so graphically described. All too often the diagnosis of dementia is articulated as an ‘end’ rather than a beginning. I inevitably watched the film through the prism of how much it promoted the notion that it is possible to live better with dementia.

The effect on work in this particular story is interesting. I am mindful of other criticisms that portraying her as a linguistics professor is over-egging the topic somewhat, but reality can be larger than life. Prof John Hodges’ team in Australia, as is known publicly, was involved in charting the change in language profile of Iris Murdoch, renowned author and wife of Prof John Bayley who has recently sadly passed away.

In someone presenting with a clinical picture of early Alzheimer’s disease, with that particular distribution of abnormal amyloid protein in the brain (although we are not given precise details), as shown by PET neuroimaging, it might be entirely reasonable to seek out a genetic diagnosis such as a presenilin mutation. I realise that Dr Alice Howland is a fictional character, but the issue of how the issue of certain types of dementia might run in families is a very active one both in the US and here in the UK.

I quite liked the use of internet chat in the film. All around the world, there is interest in the intelligent use of technology to connecting unique individuals with dementia to others, and indeed to their past through the method of ‘life story’.

No film on this topic would be expected to be anywhere near perfect, and some of the issues will be raw for many, such as the choice of care homes and behaviour in them. However, I think that this film is as a good attempt as any to cover some hugely important issues. I also think the acting in the film is simply beautiful.

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