the fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Greg Sheri­dan jon kudelka

Awork of art should re­ally be judged in the round. This is es­pe­cially true of nar­ra­tive art — a novel or a film, or even a nar­ra­tive poem. But more of­ten it’s the in­tense, pure mo­ments that stay with us.

In a ma­ture work of art, th­ese mo­ments are made pos­si­ble by the con­text, by the at­mos­phere and en­gage­ment the whole has cre­ated for the spe­cific. That’s why nar­ra­tive works that are dis­con­tin­u­ous, or which try to take any short cut to an ef­fect rather than cre­at­ing a rounded nar­ra­tive, are al­ways so un­suc­cess­ful.

In art, the epiphany comes af­ter, not in­stead of, toil.

Re­cently I saw a re­mark­able film in which three or four mo­ments are so stunning and pow­er­ful as to be, I sus­pect, in­erad­i­ca­ble from mem­ory. Let me is­sue a full spoiler alert. If you have not seen Still Alice and think the plot lines of a film that deals with early on­set Alzheimer’s may sur­prise you and that know­ing them may spoil your en­joy­ment of the film, then don’t read on.

I found Still Alice so pow­er­ful that I could not watch it all straight through. I was mak­ing two plane jour­neys on the same air­line on con­sec­u­tive days. So when I found Still Alice just too painful I switched off in my cow­ardly fash­ion, know­ing that I could dip back in the next day for the rest of it.

Although it is one of the most emo­tion­ally wrench­ing films I have seen, Still Alice is not re­motely a ma­nip­u­la­tive tear-jerker. Alice, played by Ju­lianne Moore, is a bril­liant aca­demic, a pro­fes­sor of lin­guis­tics, mar­ried to a fel­low aca­demic played by Alec Baldwin, and they have three adult chil­dren. Alice turns 50 and be­gins to ex­hibit early on­set Alzheimer’s.

Much that fol­lows is broadly pre­dictable but there are two as­pects of it I found al­most un­bear­able to watch. Baldwin plays a lov­ing hus­band. He is not hav­ing af­fairs. He is not inat­ten­tive. The mar­riage of three decades is a suc­cess. He is en­tirely sup­port­ive. But he is not es­pe­cially heroic.

This is ev­i­dent in three or four of what I class the most ter­ri­ble scenes ever on film, all the more pow­er­ful be­cause they are so un­der stated. A long por­tion of the film oc­curs while Alice is still Alice, aware of her­self and her per­son­al­ity, but has lost a lot of mem­ory and a lot of func­tion. She and her hus­band are hav­ing a hol­i­day at their beach house. He is al­ways work­ing on his lap­top. She can­not dis­tract her­self with read­ing as she did for­merly. She tries to read

Moby Dick but finds her­self read­ing the same page over and over again. With­out ex­actly say­ing so, she asks Baldwin to play with her. But he ad­vises her to read some­thing sim­pler than

Moby Dick. She ob­serves, with­out rancour but with an aching re­gret: “You al­ways work.”

Later she asks him more se­ri­ously to take a sab­bat­i­cal, take the next year off and spend it with her. Af­ter all, she says, it’s the last year I might still be my­self. He asks her not to say that but fobs her off. He’s not go­ing to take a year off to be with her. She re­peats the re­quest later on and this time when he says no she of­fers the rel­a­tively be­nign in­ter­pre­ta­tion that he can’t bear to see her af­flicted in this way. But re­ally he is just a bit self­ish, not will­ing to sub­or­di­nate his boom­ing ca­reer to his wife’s needs, and no longer as de­sirous of her com­pany as he used to be. The ex­tra­or­di­nary power in th­ese scenes comes sub­stan­tially from the fact that the Baldwin char­ac­ter is not a bad guy. He is to some ex­tent de­voted, but only to some ex­tent.

In the end I hated him, although he is pre­sented sym­pa­thet­i­cally. And yet he is also ev­ery one of us who has ever ne­glected a spouse, or a child or a par­ent for that mat­ter.

The other un­bear­able mo­ment comes from an ear­lier in­struc­tion the lu­cid Alice leaves on her com­puter hop­ing that later her in­creas­ingly con­fused self will see it. It con­cerns the idea of Alice tak­ing her own life. I defy any­one to watch the scene, when Alice later views this mes­sage, with­out pro­foundly mixed emo­tions.

I have known a cou­ple of peo­ple with Alzheimer’s and mar­velled at the hero­ism of their part­ners. This film showed me how very lit­tle I knew in­deed. Im­bued with un­der­stated po­etry, It is a sin­gu­lar and mag­nif­i­cent work of art.

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