The uptight friend, the quirky leading lady, the semi-rebellious college radio DJ who harnesses the melodic potential of red solo cups: These are the roles Anna Kendrick has been relegated to for most of her career, an eclectic mix of largely comedic vehicles. Even after the actress nabbed an Oscar nomination for her supporting role in Up in the Airshe seemed, still, more likely to portray a Beca than a Natalie.
But in Mary Nighy’s emotionally disturbing debut Alice, Darling, Kendrick transfixes, affirming that she has always had depth and range. The actress plays Alice, a woman made vulnerable and emotionally battered by an insidiously abusive relationship. Kendrick starts by channeling a fragility, as if Alice were made of china and any sudden moves from her boyfriend Simon (Charlie Carrick) or friends Sophie (Wunmi Mosaku) and Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn) could shatter her. Then her performance, under Nighy’s assured direction, shifts. It grows, retracts and swells again, reflecting the emotional seesaw of abuse.
The Bottom Line
Sensitive and gripping.
It’s through Alice’s compulsions — pulling strands of hair, winding them tightly around her index finger, obsessively counting calories — that we see the cruelty of her relationship. Nighy prefers suggestion to explanation. Through brief flashbacks, expertly intercut by editor Gareth C. Scales, we understand that Simon, a mercurial painter, has ingratiated himself into Alice’s psyche. He haunts her — so much that when Sophie and Tess invite Alice to spend a weekend at Sophie’s cottage, Alice tells Simon she’s going on a work trip. She rehearses the lie while he fetches coffee and pastries from a café, her recitation communicating another level of fear and desperation.
On the drive to the lake house, Alice can’t stop thinking about Simon. The lie gnaws at her each time her phone chimes with a text message from him. His seemingly straightforward wish for her to have a safe flight becomes fodder for her anxieties. Another text asking her if she’s thinking of him feels not only suspect, but sinister. Simon’s frenzied communication style — marked by the frequency, timing and tone of his messages — is calculated and coercive; it keeps him on Alice’s mind even, and especially, when she tries to free herself.
Most of Alice, Darling is set in the quiet, rural town surrounding the cottage. When the trio arrives, they make a quick stop at a convenience store, where Alice spots a flyer for a missing girl. The local case consumes our protagonist, who even joins search party efforts to find the teen. This is the most curious part of Alanna Francis’ otherwise fully realized and restrained screenplay: It’s difficult to discern what the case is meant to tell us without pulling our attention away from Alice’s already gripping narrative. As Alice becomes more interested in the case, its purpose feels ever more obscure.
What is clear is that physical distance and time away from Simon help Alice gain perspective about their relationship. But it’s not an easy process. A few days into the trip, Tess and Alice get into a devastating fight that leaves both unsure about their friendship. Sophie, dutiful and maternal, forces a confrontation by hiding Alice’s phone and leaving the women alone to chat. One of the most absorbing parts of Alice, Darling is watching Alice, Sophie and Tess interact with each other throughout the weekend — to witness the frustrating moments of misunderstanding and the triumphant ones of clarity. Kendrick, Mosaku and Horn sustain a natural rapport, which makes investing in their friendship easy. We silently beg Sophie and Tess to see beyond the surface of Alice’s angry eruptions and tendency to isolate. We want Alice to feel safe enough to confide in her companions.
Their strained conversations and tender moments are guided by Owen Pallett’s menacing score. The tense, undulating music is the closest we get to feeling Alice’s constant sense of impending doom. Mike McLaughlin’s unsentimental cinematography helps maintain the plaintive mood.
Without her phone, Alice loosens up, and that makes her talk more about her relationship with Simon. Hearing the anecdotes of the insults, complaints and accusations he throws at her reinforces the thoughts of Tess, Sophie and, by extension, the viewer on the depth of abuse. Alice, Darling is a portrait of contrasts. By steadily constructing an impression of how abuse impacts Alice’s behavior in the first half, Nighy adds an urgent layer to the character’s changes in the second half. Alice indulges in sugary food, takes shots at Tess’ birthday party and rejects her friends’ offer to return her cellphone.
The third act of Alice, Darling is particularly arresting in how it uses the previously built tension. Having not heard from Alice, Simon uses more extreme tactics to see her and try to restore the toxic dynamic. But Sophie and Tess have helped Alice reconnect with herself, fueling her with love and strengthening their bond. This proves to be Alice’s saving grace, giving her the permission and power to imagine a life without Simon.
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