By channeling the tropes of psychological thrillers that are about romantic obsession, Mary Nighy’s directorial debut Alice, Darling is gender-reversed like the 1996 iconic thriller Fear, but it ends up defying expectations and ends up taking its own strong measures in staying true to its genre tropes, the film prospers by focusing more on character depth and deeper themes that reflect our times than dissolving into genre cliches. In her most emotionally charged performance to date, Anna Kendrick plays the protagonist who remains aloof and in denial of just how toxic her relationship is. Stylishly directed and superbly acted, the taut drama holds some surprises, even if Nighy and screenwriter Alanna Francis skewering modern narcissism and toxic relationships, and what the ramifications hold on women who suffer from being in them. The film is grounded in reality and Kendrick and the cast deliver enough convincing anxieties that prevent the material from feeling slight.
In the opening scenes, Francis’ script and Nighy’s imagery have Alice (Kendrick) engulfed deep in murky water, unable to breath and escape the water that later builds up the rest of the narrative. It becomes a very on the nose metaphor, but the metaphor of water appears again throughout the story, and not only is it exquisitely shot, but it also works. We open to Alice, and we easily observe her denial of the toxic relationship she is in with her boyfriend, Simon (Charlie Carrick). A discouraged boyfriend with a British accent who shows no appreciation for Alice’s love or support. After a mildly attended art exhibit that consisted mainly of friends and colleagues, Simon takes all his anguish out on Alice, who gives him moral support that he uses to boost his ego. Whether his art is good or bad isn’t the point, the main fact is, he shows no value for Alice’s love. You can sense Alice supports and loves him, but you can also sense she carries a lot of anxiety as well.
Courtesy of Lions Gate
Contrary to her close friends, Tess (Kaniehtijo Horn) and Sophie (Wumni Mosaku) can see right through Simon’s behavior and their relationship, even so much, where they encourage her to flirt back with a waiter after they meet up for dinner and drinks. They also begin to ponder other clues to how Alice asks her friends if they ever had dreams before of having sex with someone other than their boyfriend, and Alice begins to feel guilty about it. Sophie and Tess end up inviting Alice out for a weekend retreat to Sophie’s parents’ lake house to celebrate Tess’s birthday. Of course, they see more red flags emerge in how Alice has to request permission from Simon first because she can’t handle being alone for that “long“ period of time.
Alice agrees to go on a trip, but she must come up with a convincing lie to tell Simon, which causes an overwhelming amount of stress and anxiety to Alice’s life. Everything she does is to appease his liking, whether it’s constantly deleting her text messages, and she auditions the lie that she eventually ends up telling Simon that will grant her permission for the girl’s weekend.
The control Simon has on Alice begins to really flow through during the brief stay with Tess and Sophie. Alice is reluctant, constantly checks her phone, and texts him back all the time, and she restricts what she eats in fear if she even eats a sugar cookie that it will make her gain way. We get into Alice’s mind, and her arguments she has of Simon accusing her of deception and peeling away her self-esteem. The film works effectively well as a meditation for female bonding and friendship, but it also emphasizes how Alice’s toxic relationship is undermining their friendship as Alice refuses any type of questions, constructive criticism, or even encouragement because she has convinced herself that Simon is the right love for her. Even though he clearly isn’t, Nighy expertly uses some artful cuts and flashbacks that give deeper insights in Simon’s malignant traits, narcissism, and severe insecurities. These traumas carry through even more when they are apart, when Alice should be using that time to enjoy her friends’ company.
In the first hour, the story does an exceptional job in highlighting Alice’s tensions and anxieties. Eventually, after a brutal confrontation and debate, Alice begins to lighten up, and turns her phone off. She also finds her solitude on the lake and takes a hiking walk to help a missing girl that was abducted in the lake town. She ends up making amends and opens up more with Tess and Sophie, in which they enjoy cutting wood with a maul (do not call it an ax), and the young ladies end up going out for some drinks where each of them finds much needed wit and spirit that was needed for the trip. It becomes apparent that Alice yearns for her inevitable independence, petrified that a wrong mood will set Simon off. Many people cling onto unhealthy relationships and blame themselves for being the problem, when the other partner is clearly the aggressor. The film lays the groundwork, the film follows the path, and you think you know where it’s going, but it becomes more nuanced and liberating. As mentioned above, the film has thriller aspects that echo many other suspense films, and just when you think you might be ahead of the game, the film defies expectations. What’s most surprising is that each of the characters and the friends are convincing in their roles, and they are well-etched characters who hold some flaws and similar experiences that Alice holds. What’s commanding about the writing is just how the characters are elevated away from plot functions, and rather help bring a catharsis in a very intense third act.
Suspense thriller aficionados or moviegoers going in expecting a generic thriller will be disappointed because while the film i a taut thriller that plays by most of the rules, but at its core the film becomes more of a character study and drama than a thriller. It really is a thinking-person woman-in-jeopardy from a bad relationship film, but Alice, Darling reminds us that it is still possible to create a thoughtful and richly dramatic film on such an overdone premise.
Alice Darling is now showing in limited theaters