Anna Kendrick and a strong supporting cast navigate a toxic relationship in Mary Nighy’s directorial debut ALICE, DARLING.
As far as I can tell, Anna Kendrick hasn’t been in a horror movie to this point in her career. Her latest film, Alice, Darling, isn’t a horror film, but it’s pretty terrifying nevertheless. It’s about a young woman stuck in an abusive relationship that has reached its breaking point.
Despite its premise and themes, Alice, Darling is not an “Issue Movie.” It’s not preachy or lecturing, favoring nuance and subtlety. Anchored by a smart script and compassionate performances, Alice, Darling marks a strong debut for director Mary Nighy.
Kendrick plays the eponymous Alice, who seems to have hit the millennial trifecta: a job with upward mobility, a nice place to live, and a stable relationship. Her partner, Simon (Charlie Carrick), however, is an artist on the cusp of breaking. Alice is supportive. At first glance, they make for an attractive couple, but the cracks in the façade appear right away.
When we see Alice on her own, she’s a ball of nerves. She wraps her hair around her fingers to the point of cutting off circulation; other times, she pulls out strands. She rehearses conversations with Simon before seeing him. She’ll cut short nights out with friends at the sound of an incoming text, her behavior shifting in an almost Pavlovian response. It’s clear very early that Alice is not in a good situation.
When we meet Simon, we’ve been primed to expect a domineering man, a guy who yells and hits and does whatever he wants. That’s what similar movies have taught us to expect of abusers. But Simon’s evil is more banal and favors microaggressions and remarks about the effects Alice’s actions have on him. The cumulative toll of Simon’s psychological abuse has reduced Alice to a level of codependency that is untenable.
What’s most frightening about Alice’s situation is the ease with which someone could fall into it. It’s not clear exactly how long Alice and Simon have been together, but it’s exceedingly evident how thoroughly Simon has enveloped Alice and made her subservient to him. The relationship has turned Alice into a ghost of her herself, something her friends Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Sophie (Wunmi Mosaku) are acutely aware of. They invite Alice on a girls getaway to Tess’s parents’s cabin, where many things that have gone unsaid between the friends come to the fore.
Among the movie’s many merits, it’s the performances that make the whole thing work as well as it does. Carrick threads the needle of making Simon controlling and monstrous without tipping over into cartoonish villainy. His standout moment comes early on at a gallery show Simon hosts. We see him working the crowd, only to get home and lash out at Alice about how the show was a failure. Alice mentions the respectable crowd, only for Simon to remark that there weren’t “any important people”
there. Words are weapons, and Simon knows how to wield them to devastating effect.
Tess and Sophie have a fascinating dynamic both between themselves and with Alice. Tess is prickly, and her early scenes with Alice give off the air of friends drifting apart, on the verge of being done with each other. Sophie and Alice appear to be on firmer ground. Most importantly, Tess and Sophie are in lockstep when it comes to Alice.
Horn and Mosaku navigate their characters so well. In just a few scenes they show, how their characters function on their own, together, and with Alice. The full power of their performances is realized as the movie reaches its conclusion, paying off the groundwork the actresses have laid earlier in the film.
As strong as the supporting cast is, the movie hinges on Kendrick, and she gives one of her most interesting and complex performances to date. She plays Alice as a woman caught in quicksand, one who fell into something dangerous slowly enough that by the time she realized she was in trouble, she doesn’t have a way to get out. It’s a harrowing performance that conveys how easy it is for a person to unwittingly fall into a bad situation. At every moment, Kendrick is balancing multiple emotions, and she holds them together in a way that achieves a frightening honesty.
Alanna Francis’s script is unflinching and graceful. For the most part, the dialogue avoids clichés and on-the-nose commentary. Francis puts the characters in familiar situations but gives them the words to make them feel unique. Most importantly, she lets the characters’s actions speak to the film’s themes rather than having them spell it all out. Combined with Nighy’s direction that mines the movie’s quietness for its most powerful moments, Alice, Darling is a movie that burrows under the skin and is hard to shake.
Alice, Darling is playing exclusively in AMC theaters beginning Friday, January 20.