Julianne Moore finally clinched her first Best Actress Oscar for moving drama Still Alice, one that charts the devastating effects of early onset Alzheimer's disease on an American family. Moore gives a powerful performance as Dr. Alice Howland, a linguistics professor who is happily married with three children. However, she becomes unsettled when words, the very foundation of her successful career, seemingly start to disappear from her memory, and she's soon given the tragic diagnosis that she has Alzheimer's.
Moore gives a vividly painful and believable sense of an intelligent woman fading before us and is supported by an excellent cast including Alec Baldwin as Alice's husband John and Kristen Stewart as her daughter Lydia. The film is made all the more poignant by the passing of co-director Richard Glatzer, himself a sufferer with ALS, and whose personal experiences with degenerative brain conditions helped inform the sensitivity of the narrative. Another aspect of the production lending poignancy is the understated score by British composer Ilan Eshkeri, whose music treads that finest of lines between sentiment and sincerity. It's to the composer's credit that it largely falls on the latter side, drawing out the tragedy of Alice's story without ever imposing on our emotions too aggressively. Eshkeri, who rose to fame by working with director Matthew Vaughn on Stardust and Kick-Ass, has been on a roll in recent years, composing scores for everything from sweeping samurai epics (47 Ronin) to claustrophobic submarine thrillers (Black Sea) to British claymation comedies (Shaun the Sheep). Still Alice continues to demonstrate Eshkeri's chameleon-like versatility and is one of the most impressive scores of his career to date.
Eshkeri feeds off Moore's outstanding central performance, basing his relatively brief soundtrack around a series of intimate string and piano arrangements that, gradually, fade away. It's a straightforward approach but one that's very effective in evoking a person losing their essence. The opener "L.A. Drive" establishes the somewhat melancholy but undeniably beautiful tone, a gentle piano arrangement accompanied by solo cello and violin. The following track "No Secrets" is considerably more poignant, the piano slowed down to a more reflective pace as it anticipates the sadness to come. The theme in this track becomes central to the score, capturing Alice's declining sense of herself.
"Running" restores a sense of optimism, strings chugging along with a sense of movement before the unsettling second half dissolves into a tuneless, dirge-like noise, accompanying one of the film's most chilling scenes as Alice forgets who she is in the middle of a public place. Unsurprisingly given its title, "Alice Tells the Children" brims with a sense of sadness, the strings and piano robbed of their vitality. "Beach" is one of the score's most haunting moments, with an almost folksy string solo combining with the piano and evocatively conjuring up waves lapping across a share. The redemptive power of the sea is a key theme in the film and Eshkeri captures this perfectly. "Words with Friends" restores the hesitant piano theme of the earlier "No Secrets" track, further encapsulating the sadness of the story. "Butterfly" adds to the wistful feel, a moving cello solo lamenting the loss of earlier, happier times whilst the following "Lost Phone" is more strained and ghostly.
"Speech" features more lovely interaction between piano and strings whereas "Pills" features more of the unsettling, grinding string work and fluttery piano notes designed to capture the pain and anguish of Alice's condition. Nevertheless, as the film moves towards its heartrending yet optimistic conclusion, Eshkeri's score follows suit with a trio of tracks that are deeply sad yet beautifully compassionate. "Toothpaste" is the most fluid of these, led by a graceful piano solo, followed by "Souls Rising" and "It Was About Love", both of which reinstate the attractive main theme, as Alice's family come to terms with her illness. The major key change in the latter track is noteworthy, indicating that despite the hardship, love will endure. The album then concludes with song "If I Had a Boat" by British singer-songwriter Karen Elson.
Although Ilan Eshkeri's approach with Still Alice is hardly revolutionary or unexpected, it's still an effective one for the film in question. The composer's choice of a small ensemble led largely by piano and strings avoids schmaltz and instead captures the poignancy of Alice's story. Yet at the same time, it's also tinged with a sense of love and caring, reminding us of the importance of Alice's family in times of great distress. It's a brief soundtrack but a quietly powerful one, restrained enough to avoid earnestness but direct enough to work on the heartstrings. It's a reminder of Eshkeri's talent for melody and listeners with a penchant for small-scale, gentle scores would do well to check it out. The score is available as both a CD release and MP3 download on Amazon, and further information can be found at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.