Anna Kendrick stars in Mary Nighy’s feature debut.
A specter haunts the title character of actor-turned-director Mary Nighy’s feature debut, Alice, Darling. He seemingly haunts Alice’s (Anna Kendrick) every waking moment and every fitful dream, a voice floating in her mind, judging her, criticizing her imperfections, and molding her in his own toxic image. He is Alice’s longtime boyfriend, Simon (Charlie Carrick), a narcissistic, semi-successful, mid-level painter with delusions of grandeur and a crippling inferiority complex that he projects onto Alice and their floundering, potentially fatal relationship.
The debilitating effects of that self-destructing relationship are evident in the first cryptic scene of Alice floating, eyes closed, underwater (a motif Alice, Darling revisits more than once). That particular iteration of Alice seems poised between a life-or-death decision that goes beyond her relationship with Simon. We soon return to the “present,” however, as a nervous, fidgety Alice fends off smothering texts with Simon in the back of an Uber while she tries to mentally prepare herself for a reunion with her childhood friends, Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Sophie (Wunmi Mosaku, Lovecraft Country).
Alice, of course, can’t fool Tess or Sophie. They immediately note her evasive answers, anxious demeanor, and a head bowed not in prayer, but to constantly scan her phone for Simon’s intrusive texts. Tess and Sophie suggest an extended weekend at the lake house cabin belonging to Sophie’s family. It’s an intervention except in name, but Alice eventually comes around. Fearful of Simon’s response, she lies, telling him that she’s going away on a last-minute business trip.
That alone gives the distrustful Simon—obsessed with keeping Alice if not always within sight, then within reach—additional ammunition when he discovers her subterfuge, setting up conflict, confrontation, and a “Should I stay or should I go?” choice for Alice. It’s also just as evident, though, that Alice requires a certain level of deprogramming before she can shed Simon’s spectral presence, leading to a series of tense, sometimes angry exchanges among the three friends, always with the stakes of Alice’s future hovering just offscreen.
Nighy and writer Alanna Francis (The Rest of Us) thread a thematically linked subplot involving a missing local girl into the overarching narrative, adding a persistent note of ominous dread to Alice’s predicament and the film itself. Simon might not be physically violent, but it feels like it’s only a matter of time before his displeasure with a more independent Alice does, in fact, lead to violence. Nighy and Francis, however, sidestep the usual thriller conventions and tropes for something that more closely resembles the real world, keeping the audiences engaged in Alice’s unfolding story.
Unsurprisingly, a small-scale, intimate film involving four leads and little non-verbal action depends almost exclusively on a combination of direction, dialogue, and performance to work effectively as a psychological thriller, character study, and straightforward drama. It definitely does thanks to grounded, committed performances from a cast delivering their next-level best, Nighy’s taut, tense direction, and Francis’s lean, economical screenplay.
Alice, Darling opens theatrically in North America on Friday, January 20th.