A film review by Craig J. Koban February 15, 2023

ALICE, DARLING  jj
 

2023, R, 89 mins.

Anna Kendrick as Alice  /  Kaniehtiio Horn as Tess  /  Charlie Carrick as Simon  /  Wunmi Mosaku as Sophie  /  Markjan Winnick as Marcus  /  Daniel Stolfi as Officer

Directed by Mary Nighy  /  Written by Alanna Francis
 

 

 

There's probably no better example in recent memory of a single actress elevating so-so material and uneven storytelling than Anna Kendrick in the new psychological thriller ALICE, DARLING.  

If you're used to seeing her in more happy-go-lucky and bubbly roles (such as in the PITCH PERFECT series) then her new film should serve as an immediate wake-up call (and perhaps reminder) of the types of serious roles that she can be superb in when given the right chance (UP IN THE AIR comes immediately to mind).  In Mary Nighy's (daughter of Bill) feature film directorial debut she plays a traumatized woman that's involved in a deeply abusive relationship with her longtime boyfriend.  Hoping for an escape, she tries to spend what should have been a relaxing and fun all-girls retreat out in the country with her BFFs, only to become more mentally unraveled by the minute by the constant toxic demands from this man that simply can't take no for an answer.  Kendrick gives a sensationally grounded and wholly credible portrait of this woman in peril, and the underlining story here is noble minded in its themes, to be sure.  Unfortunately, too much of ALICE, DARLING - in terms of its scripting - feels half baked and underwritten.  The emotional spectrum of this tormented victim has weight in the film, but the overall story feels oddly waiver thin. 

Kendrick plays the titular character, who's been in a relationship with Simon (Charlie Carrick) for years.  On the outside to everyone around them, Alice and Simon seem like a happy and mutually loving couple, but that's all a ruse, seeing as he's secretly a domineering control freak that engages in psychological warfare with the meager minded and vulnerable Alice and, as a result, always gets his sick way.  She's driven to stay with him as many, I think, do when involved in improbably hellish relationships, perhaps fearing what could result if she does bolster up the courage to leave him.  Nevertheless, she puts on a good face for any public appearances with him (he's a struggling up-and-coming painter that's having great difficulty making his way up the industry ladder).  Alice does have some semblance of freedom from Simon's clutches in the form of her friends in Tess (Kaniehiio Horn) and Sophie (Wunmi Mosaku), who were once tight besties, but have grown somewhat apart over the years because of the way that Simon has monopolized every waking minute of Alice's life. 

An opportunity comes in the form of a week-long escape (girls only, no boyfriends allowed) to a lake retreat to celebrate Tess' birthday.  Although obviously reluctant at first to leave Simon for seven days, Alice begrudgingly agrees to go and the three woman gather at a family cabin to begin the rekindling of friendships and to escape from the pressures of big city life.  While Tess and Sophie deep dive commit into this plan, Alice seems distant and aloof in her struggles to completely separate herself from her phone and Simon's constant online pestering.  Tess grows increasingly perplexed by the day as to why Alice is acting so weird, whereas Sophie seems to understand that not all is right with Alice, but without precisely pinpointing the root cause.  Alice, in the meantime, is severely struggling with the pressures of making her friends happy during their vacation and the onslaught of demands coming from Simon's never-ending text messages.  He has had enough of her being away and orders her to return prematurely, and Alice becomes so scared at any blowback for disobeying him that she starts to pack her things and prepare for the journey home.  Secretly, she wants to be as far away from this cretin as possible and for good, but she's so paralyzed by fear that she doesn't know how to do so.  Realizing what's really happening with their mentally destroyed friend, Sophie and Tess do what they can to stage an intervention.   

 

 

In the early stages, I thought for sure that ALICE, DARLING was going to stumble down a FATAL ATTRACTION story rabbit hole as far as Alice's relationship with Simon goes.  To its credit, the film doesn't entirely follow an obligatory genre path.  Nighy and screenwriter Alanna Francis are plotting a drama about domestic abuse, to be sure, but the film doesn't revel in scenes of violence or physical torture in its key doomed relationship.  Rather more compellingly, ALICE, DARLING focuses less on scenes between Alice and Simon and instead hones in on Alice's beleaguered state away from him and all of the dehumanizing things that he requests of her from afar.  The film becomes a cerebral horror show in terms of relaying Alice's state of complete denial (she tries to convince herself - and what few friends she does have left - that everything is fine in her world when it's anything but).  In Nighy's hands, ALICE, DARLING becomes a fairly commendable tale of detailing the hopeless powerlessness that women have when involved with the wrong kind lecherous and dangerous minded man.  Alice is the kind of abuse victim whose real damaging home life can be understood for what it is by most on the outside, but she feels pathetically trapped by feelings of justifying her relationship with Simon, even though it's killing her from the inside out.   

The opening scenes are quite good here, as we see Alice feeling burdened by the weight of Simon's hostile needs and the more protective desires of her two friends.  ALICE, DARLING rightfully shows how one woman's abusive relationship can have a spill over effect into other relationships outside of that, and her early interactions with Tess and Sophie are fraught with awkwardness.  Alice seems constantly distracted, emotionally remote, and just can't seem to keep her eyes off of her smart phone when with her pals, and parts of the film that are arguably the hardest to endure and pack the biggest impact are Alice's feeble attempts to make everything in her life seem normal to Tess and Sophie, which boils over into different types of stressful tension.  Alice is indeed the main victim here, and the cavalcade of requests made by Simon to her are unnerving, to say the least.  There's something truly haunting about moments - for example - when Alice excuses herself from her pals to go to the washroom and then uses that opportunity to message Simon a racy picture of herself.  You can really feel this woman's entire world closing in on her to suffocating levels.  She can only take it for so long...as is about to burst at the seams. 

And - as mentioned - the key to ALICE, DARLING is Kendrick's fully believable portrayal of this woman trapped by the limitless unhealthy pathos that typifies her home life.  Alice is a woman that's so overwhelmed by notions of vengeful hate being perpetrated on her by Simon that she simply can't function anymore in what should be normal social situations without him.  Kendrick wisely plays the fractured headspace of this poor woman with of cries of bleak despair and catatonic silence.  On levels of pure dramatic honesty with this character, ALICE, DARLING is on undeniably strong ground throughout.  Still, and having said that, I started thinking about what this film would have been like without Kendrick's indispensable presence and that's when the experience of watching it starting to falter for me.  If you go beyond the Oscar nominated actress' superlative work here, there's simply not much left in ALICE, DARLING to recommend.  Aside from strong early story machinations and Nighy's poised unwillingness to avoid her film becoming yet another mad-boyfriend-stalker-from-hell thriller, there's not a lot of an actual plot that's here on the page: Abusive woman leaves tormenting boyfriend to be away with her friends...he keeps obsessively contacting her...she has a mental break...friends step in...boyfriend shows up...a battle of wills ensue...and that's essentially it.  Beyond the thin scripting, the film seems to rush itself to its would be tension-filled climax between all parties that finds a manner of resolving everything that never once feels plausible.  If only real life problems were fixed so quickly. 

Another nagging issue at play here is that Simon, as a character, is kind of a non-entity.  He barely makes much of an appearance in the film until well into the proceedings, and then when he does in the story's ill conceived and shoddily executed climax it all feels so oddly and coldly anticlimactic.  Simon is not much of a realized person, granted, I understand that the intent by Nighy was to focus on the abuse that Alice feels while away from him.  Charlie Carrick's casting is also a misstep, mostly because he never really comes off as a truly unstable entity in this film and lacks unsettling charisma required for the role (imagine, say, a Cillian Murphy in this part).  Nighy also gets a bit carried away with some beyond-obvious visual symbolism in the film, like the dreamlike vignettes of Alice being under murky water that can't seem to swim back up to get air and save herself (yeah, it's more than a little heavy handed and forced), not to mention that there are some bizarre subplots that kind of go nowhere, like Alice joining a volunteer effort to find a missing girl in the area (during these scenes it's almost like Kendrick walked off the set of this film and joined a totally different one altogether).  

In the end, I respected the makers' intentions in ALICE, DARLING for wanting to craft a timely cautionary tale of domestic abuse, the spiral of self-shame when a woman is in such a union with no easy exit-strategy, and the monumental struggles one faces when attempting to flee from such a dreadful situation.  Nighy opens her film confidently and has a thoroughly superb lead actress at the helm that gives career high work, but ALICE, DARLING - as a whole - doesn't have enough memorable weight and consequence.  The film is not as deep and penetrating as it thinks it is, and that's a crying shame considering the subject matter. 

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