Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 41 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star ratings (1-5): 5
Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all. For no one can anticipate the time of disaster. Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them.
But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children.
The word “memory” appears over 200 times in the NRSV Bible, and “forget” over 60, so it is obvious that they are important for the life of faith as proclaimed in the Hebrew/Christian tradition. In the above passage Moses assumes that we can control memory so that forgetting becomes a sinful act. We see this often in the warnings in Psalms and the denunciations of the prophets, all aimed at a people who have forgotten both their gracious deliverance by God from bondage and his gift of the “statues and ordinances.” But what if you cannot control your memory? What if, despite all your efforts, it slips away, and no amount of straining for it can bring it back? That is the harsh predicament that the married directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have set up for Alice Howard (Julianne Moore) in their heart-felt adaptation of the 2007 novel. It’s author Lisa Genova, with a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard, is an online columnist for the National Alzheimer’s Association, so we can rest assured that the story, though fictional, rings true.
Alice is a distinguished linguistic professor and author at Columbia University. Her happy marriage to biologist John (Alec Baldwin) has produced three children, now grown—the married Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parrish), and aspiring actress Lydia (Kristen Stewart). Just 50 years of age, she is at the peak of her career, but she begins to notice that her memory is slipping. She cannot recall a word, and while jogging through campus, she stops because she cannot remember where she is. That moment of confusion and anguish is marvelously conveyed by Ms. Moore’s facial expression—no need for words. John is somewhat dismissive of her fears. Even when the doctor she confers with suggests that it could be an early form of Alzheimer’s, he dismisses the possibility, causing her to lash out in anger. There apparently is a history of his not listening to her. The tests bear out the doctor’s suspicion. She has a rare form of the disease that attacks younger persons, and worst of all, it is hereditary, there being a 50% chance that the children will become its victims.
They try to keep her ailment secret for a while, but when she has trouble remembering a dinner guest, they can no longer ignore the condition. The scene in which she announces this prophecy of doom to the children is a taut, poignant one, as are many scenes that follow.
Alice’s relation with youngest daughter Lydia had been strained a bit because Alice kept urging her to go to college so she would have a career to fall back on in case her acting dreams did not come true. Lydia had both rejected and resented the steady advice, but as the disease quickly advances, she is the one who takes on the role of close caregiver. Husband John is even so insensitive as to seriously consider an offer of a plumb position at a famous medical clinic, but it would mean moving out of town, so that Alice would be forced to cope with unfamiliar surroundings at a time when she was having trouble remembering her lifetime haunts. She follows the usual procedure of leaving herself notes all over for reminders, but this is a stopgap measure. Like a Greek tragedy, the arc of her life is headed downward.
Usually so confident before her lectures, she now worries about delivering an address at the Annual Dementia Care Conference. Her address does have a moment when disaster threatens, but she is able to recover. Some of her moving words, “Good morning. It’s an honor to be here. The poet Elizabeth Bishop once wrote: ‘the Art of Losing isn’t hard to master: so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster.’ I’m not a poet, I am a person living with Early Onset Alzheimer’s, and as that person I find myself learning the art of losing every day. Losing my bearings, losing objects, losing sleep, but mostly losing memories…” She bravely informs the audience, “Being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is like being branded with a scarlet A. But I am not what I say or what I do or what I remember. I am fundamentally more than that . . . Please don’t look at our scarlet A’s and write us off . . .. I am not suffering. I am struggling.” And struggle she does. At one moment she opens her laptop and finds a recording she had made that are for her eyes only. Speaking as if to a child needing precise directions, her recorded image tells herself where she has secreted some pills and how to use them so that she can spare the family the long agony of her decline into the darkness of oblivion and death. In another scene Lydia is reading her part of Angels in America. She stops and asks her mother if she can remember the story, and Alice replies that it is a story of love. And so is this one.
With five million Americans (and 36 million worldwide) living with Alzheimer’s disease, this film is certainly relevant, and blessed with the talented Julianne Moore’s most effective performance in her distinguished career, earning her at last an Oscar for Best Actress. Avoiding the “disease of the week” sentimentality of so many TV movies, this film acknowledges there can be no Hollywood happy ending, other than the reminder that finite human beings are capable of putting up a hard fight to retain a semblance of their dignity.
The opening lines of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” are a beautiful, sad variation on the theme of what the author of Ecclesiastes calls “vanity,” the recognition that in the end human destiny leads to loss, the extreme form of which is death, for rich and poor, powerful and lowly. The American poet begins with the loss of small things—“lost door keys”, an “hour badly spent,” places and names—moves on to weightier things—a mother’s watch and three houses—and each time the poet repeats the first line, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” and a little later the denial that the loss is a “disaster.” But when she faces the loss of someone close, it is a different story. At the end of Bishop’s poem we might be tempted to turn to another poet whose line “Do not go gentle into that good night…” is well embodied in Alice Howard.
In less than a year we have been blessed with two fine films about this dread disease, the documentary Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me and now this fictional but true story. You owe it to yourself to see both and discover how great the human spirit is when pushed to its limits. Mention of Ecclesiastes above reminds us that its author had one thing that Alice and her family seem to lack, a faith that though we might forget our Creator, the Creator will not forget us.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the March 2015 issue of Visual Parables.