It’s all in the details. Tugging out her hair. Leaping to answer her phone every time it dings. The constant calorie-counting. Always needing to have her hair and make-up done just right. When we first meet Alice (Anna Kendrick), she’s meeting her two best friends Sophie (Wunmi Mosaku) and Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn) for dinner, but it’s obvious that she is struggling to appear at ease, and she rushes off early to join the source of her discomfort: her controlling artist boyfriend, Simon (Charlie Carrick).
“Alice, Darling” is the debut film from director Mary Nighy, but she guides the story (by Alanna Francis) and Kendrick’s performance with an assured hand. We only occasionally see Simon explicitly demean Alice through her occasional nightmarish flashbacks, and we never need to see his abuse of her spelled out; it’s all right there in the way that Kendrick holds herself, in the way that, for the first half of the film at least, she appears so on edge she might shatter at the slightest noise or careless remark thrown at her. It’s there in the way that, while Simon fetches their coffee and breakfast, she anxiously rehearses something she needs to tell him under her breath. Sophie and Tess want Alice to come away with them to a remote cottage for the week to celebrate Tess’s birthday. Alice knows Simon won’t want her to go with them, so she lies, telling him she has to go to Milwaukee for a business trip.
Simon may not be physically present for much of the film (and when he is, he is constantly beating up himself and his work so that Alice will feel compelled to heap praise upon him and build his ego back up), but his presence looms over every scene. It’s during this time away from him that everything starts to come out. Her nervousness that Simon might find out about her lie and what he might do becomes increasingly apparent, the tension between her and her friends—who know that she isn’t like herself anymore and that something is off but don’t know the reason—escalating to a breaking point. But it’s after the narrative reaches that breaking point that Alice—and Kendrick’s performance—starts to turn. She loosens up. She laughs more often and more freely. It’s almost as if she’s transformed into an entirely different person.
The success of “Alice, Darling” is carried almost entirely on the fact that the three leads exhibit such a natural chemistry, we do believe that they are close friends, whether they are fighting or having fun. Mosaku’s strong, maternal presence is deeply felt whenever she is on screen. Tess has the more fraught relationship with Alice—it’s alluded to that she hasn’t been happy with where she’s at in her own art career—but Kaniehtiio plays her as someone whose outward frustration and occasional meanness masks a sincere concern for her friend in addition to her own personal insecurities. Throughout so much of the movie we are just rooting for the threesome to reach some sort of understanding, and that’s a testament to the tight friendship that is established onscreen almost immediately, as well as the clear picture we get of the intense emotional abuse Alice has been subjected to.
Of course, we’re also rooting for Alice to ditch Simon, and the final act of the film—which never loses that thread of tension even when things seem safe—takes a truly alarming turn. The story is aided further by Owen Pallett’s suspenseful score and Mike McLaughlin’s no-frills cinematography that places more emphasis on the characters. The only real question mark in the otherwise tight script is the inclusion of a subplot involving a young woman who has gone missing in the small town Alice and her friends are staying in. Alice is immediately drawn to the missing posters she glimpses in the convenience store they stop at on their way into town, and when she later finds that there’s a search party that heads out looking for her every day, she joins in. Maybe Alice sees in the missing girl a potential end for her if she stays with Simon, maybe just trying to help another woman in need gives her some purpose, but it’s a tangent that doesn’t really flow as smoothly into the rest of the narrative. Still, “Alice, Darling” is an effective character drama featuring a career-best performance from Anna Kendrick that really allows her to stretch her dramatic muscles, while urgently calling attention to the signs of partner abuse.
“Alice, Darling” opens in theaters on January 20. Runtime: 90 minutes. Rated R.
Media review screener courtesy Lionsgate.