Alice, Darling Is a Harrowing Yet Thin Showcase for Anna KendrickMovies Reviews Anna Kendrick
For a while, it was an occasional and ill-advised rite of movie-star passage: Play a woman who is stalked by a domestic abuser, then fight back with crowdpleasing vigor. Sleeping with the Enemy set a template; Enough, trying for an imitation of that hit, accidentally provided a rejoinder: Enough with stars like Julia Roberts and Jennifer Lopez using domestic violence as a vehicle for cheap empowerment and cheaper thrills. In this sense, Alice, Darling offers a corrective. It’s a movie about a toxic relationship that digs into the harrowing psychological details of mental and verbal abuse without exploiting it. It’s also a single-minded PSA picture — indie portraiture with hardly any identifying details filled in.
Maybe this is the intention of director Mary Nighy (daughter of actor Bill) and screenwriter Alanna Francis; maybe they’re illustrating the way an abusive relationship blots out the victim’s personhood. At first, the only physical damage we see done to Alice (Anna Kendrick) looks small and self-inflicted: nervous fidgets and hair-pulls, warning signs of frayed nerves. Her boyfriend Simon (Charlie Carrick), a supposedly sensitive “perfectionist” of an artist, isn’t literally laying hands on her; when you’re a perfectionist, you’re not controlling, just disappointed. Gradually, we realize that Simon’s psychological abuse essentially outsources tiny slices of violence to Alice herself.
Well, maybe it’s not that gradual. Early in the film, Nighy derives a lot of tension from the looks shared by Alice’s longtime friends Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Sophie (Wunmi Mosaku) and Alice’s endless attention to her phone, lest Simon’s texts go unanswered. Tess and Sophie are clearly wary of changes they’ve seen in their friend, but it’s initially unclear how much they know about Simon and Alice’s relationship. They certainly don’t see Alice rehearsing her lie about a work trip that enables her to go on a week-long lakeside getaway celebrating Tess’s birthday; she even flips the lie to use on her friends, trying to back out of the long-promised trip for work reasons. It’s easy enough for Tess and Sophie to blame the air between them on personality conflicts and the difficulties of maintaining long-term friendships.
Too easy, given their neatly prescribed roles: Sophie is the peacemaker while Tess is the pricklier and more confrontational one. By the time Alice is chastising herself for having a sex dream about someone other than Simon, or parroting concerns about the evilly organ-corroding powers of sugar, it should be clear to both friends that they’re neatly functional supporting characters in an extremely unsubtle film that knows the general moves of a quiet indie drama without ever offering much beyond vivid and unsettling warning signs. While she’s out of town, Alice’s path keeps intersecting with the case of a missing girl, and knowing exactly what she’s feeling about this — a queasy empathy prodding her toward a choice she must make before it’s too late — only makes this thematic throughline feel more like writerly embroidery.
Kendrick is very good here; it’s appropriately upsetting to watch her chipper self-deprecation and tart determination drained of its comic ebullience. Yet it’s hard to go all-in with the exhortations of some festival reactions that called this one of her best performances. It’s the kind of praise that prizes seriousness and suffering above all else and, in an inadvertent and well-meaning way, devalues Kendrick’s gifts. She deserves the same kind of star vehicles that power the filmographies of Roberts or Lopez; she’s done her share of musicals and indie comedies, but she would so obviously be equally winning in rom-coms or thrillers.
It sounds churlish, of course, to complain about an actor doing heartfelt work in a human-scale drama, especially one that obviously means a lot to her. (Kendrick has discussed how her own experiences with emotional abuse informed the film.) But Alice, Darling never fills in; it just keeps teasing the possibility that it will nosedive into a much worse movie. That looming tension with Hollywood’s history of turning violent abuse into thrills is interesting, but it’s not enough to sustain even a 90-minute feature on its own when so much of the movie proceeds on a loop: tense close-ups, the ping of phone notifications, friends exchanging meaningful micro-glances, nervous hair-pulling, fragments of nastier one-sided fights initiated by Simon. Again, it’s something that makes sense on paper: Alice is in an abusive cycle from which she must break free. In practice, it doesn’t come alive. Alice, Darling is a lot more reflective than something like Sleeping with the Enemy, but that thoughtfulness doesn’t actually make it all the way to the screen.
Director: Mary Nighy
Writer: Alanna Francis
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Kaniehtiio Horn, Wunmi Mosaku, Charlie Carrick
Release Date: January 20, 2023
Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.