Three films about Alzheimer’s disease

Away From HerAlzheimer’s disease is a ‘worthy’ issue and such issues don’t often make for great films. Even the most successful have their moment of exposure and then fade away like memories. That said, Alzheimer’s is an issue with inbuilt dramatic thrust. What could be more scary than a disappearing self?

I’ve a special interest in dementia, having spent much of my career working in and around healthcare. We also have it in the family. So I’m somewhere in the middle of what you might call the novice-to-expert scale.

One of the things about watching films on subjects in which you have some expertise is the dialogue. More exactly, the level of exposition of the dialogue. If the join between explanation and normal-sounding speech is not well done, then the film can clunk.

There haven’t been many films where Alzheimer’s has been central to the story. Perhaps this is because we’re not generally interested in ageing. There are many where problems with cognition affect people, for example On Golden Pond. But the three I’ve chosen have similarities over and above Alzheimer’s. They all have strong women in the central, ‘ill’ role. They all try to gauge the effect of Alzheimer’s on partners and family members. And they ‘re all ‘actor-ly’. But there are differences that make direct comparisons hard, mainly because they all rise above the ‘films as issues’ problem. They are at heart films about characters and relationships.

Iris (2001)

This recounts the love affair between the novelist Iris Murdoch and her husband John Bayley. The story is told in flashback, with Kate Winslet and Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville as the younger couple and Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent as their ageing selves. The tone of the film is elegiac, mournful; the images of Murdoch’s decline are particularly haunting. It’s not how we tend to see Alzheimer’s these days. Though a mind wasting away is still a tragedy, therapy is now focused more on the positive aspects of personality that do remain.

Perhaps it’s a little dated, but the dialogue in Iris is as good as you would expect. It’s worth watching for classic English actors performing classically (Richard Eyre directed). Winslet turns in a strong performance with more than a hint of the steel that Murdoch obviously had.

Away from Her (2006)

This has a lot of the arthouse about it, perhaps predictably for a film that came from a story by Alice Munro and has Atom Egoyan listed in the credits. Featuring a stately Julie Christie, it explores what happens after a woman with early-onset dementia, Fiona Anderson, chooses (and this is important) to go into a care home. The care home in question has a somewhat bizarre policy of banning visits by relatives for the first 30 days to allow residents time to settle. When Grant, Fiona’s husband, does return, he finds that Fiona has started a relationship with another resident.

It’s an interesting premise that allows the plot to explore the history of the protagonists’ story, bringing it out not so much in flashback – though there is some of that – but more through dialogue and ‘in the eyes’.

Parts of this film feel contrived, and the more I’ve thought about it the more it has grown in strangeness. But it remains in the mind in the way the other two don’t. It’s beautifully shot and features a masterclass in restrained acting by Gordon Pinsent as Fiona’s devoted husband. The dialogue is mostly unforced, too.

Still Alice (2014)

This is perhaps the most straightforward of the three, though some tricksy camerawork does try to shake it up a bit. It details, in a linear story arc, Alice’s descent into full-blown, early-onset Alzheimer’s, a particularly severe form of the disease. It’s good on the life choices that have to be made by people’s families. Alec Baldwin also weighs in well as the husband who never comes to terms with his wife’s decline. The central drama, however, is actually the softening relationship between Alice and her daughter, Lydia, tautly played by Kristen Stewart.

The film sometimes feels a little forced and suffers from some tinny exposition and issues-film predictability (think soft classical music). There is also a coldness to it, which may be because none of the characters are that likeable. Still Alice is marked out, however, by a stellar performance by Julianne Moore, who must surely be the cream of the current character actresses in Hollywood.

So here are three films in an area in which I can claim to have some expertise. I often wonder what other experts think about movies. For some reason I’m intrigued about engineers’ views on the big budget technology of James Cameron’s films, especially The Abyss? More widely, though what is the relationship between the length of stretch of our credibility and our enjoyment of a film?

Ed Rowe is a full-time dad reacquainting himself with cinema after an early love affair came to an untimely end. He has worked as a barman in a small cinema and was an extra in the drama A Very British Coup.

9 thoughts on “Three films about Alzheimer’s disease

  1. Thanks Hans. The editing helps but Moore’s performance is truly outstanding. As is Dench’s. Iris is very much a movie of its time. Would it be approached in the same way these days? I’m not sure.

  2. Iris is a movie that is very, very high on my thousand-best list (in the top 20, possibly the top 10), but I can’t imagine ever attempting to sit through it again. It is horrifying and soul-destroying, and I mean that in the best of ways–I love Dame Judi and have seen her in dozens of films, and have never seen her come close to the level of acting talent she put on display in that film. Which of course makes it all the more impossible to watch.

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  4. I’ll never forget watching Still Alice and Iris in the theaters. I was moved to tears by them. Still Alice was strong, too. It really captured Alice’s disorientation brilliantly with the editing, but it wasn’t as moving as the other two.

  5. I liked, but didn’t love, all three of these. Maybe that’s because of my discomfort with the subject. Away From Her was the best, I think, and I really liked the way that Olympia Dukakis’ anger counterbalanced Pinsent’s bemused helplessness.

  6. Of these, I have only seen Iris, and found it very moving, with good performances by the whole cast. This was an interesting theme to explore, Ed, and I will look forward to catching up with the two more recent films in the future.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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