Film & Television

‘Alice, Darling’ Exposes Emotional Abuse On and Off the Screen

“I have so much shame about not leaving. I believed that if we broke up — if he left, basically — it was a confirmation that it’s because I’m impossible. I’m lucky he’s even tolerating my bullshit … It was so much easier for me to assume that I was crazy or doing something wrong. I’ve just always felt he was so cool, calm, collected. That I must be provoking this.”

This was actor Anna Kendrick, speaking candidly on the podcast Armchair Expert. But, it could just as easily have been the main character in the intense drama/thriller Alice, Darling. In fact, that’s one of the reasons Kendrick chose to star in the project.

As she explained to People prior to the film’s release, “I think my rep sent [the script] to me, because he knew what I’d been dealing with and sent it along. Because he was like, ‘This sort of speaks to everything that you’ve been talking to me about.’ It felt really distinct in that I had, frankly, seen a lot of movies about abusive or toxic relationships, and it didn’t really look like what was happening to me. It kind of helped me normalize and minimize what was happening to me, because I thought, ‘Well, if I was in an abusive relationship, it would look like that.’”

Alice, Darling is written by Alanna Francis (The Rest of Us) and marks the feature-film directorial debut of Mary Nighy. In an interview, Nighy told ScreenRant, “I think what really spoke to me about the script of Alice, Darling was it felt as though Alice had such a rich internal world. It was mostly without words. I loved the idea of the challenge of that, as a filmmaker. How do you make something that’s very internal? How do you externalize it? And what techniques can you use with sound or with image to draw out somebody who’s in the grip of something that’s really quite paralyzing? How do you make that visible to an audience?”

Alice, at first glance, seems to be “living her best life” in an unidentified city (real-life Toronto) with a successful job, nice things, good friends, and sexy, besotted British artist boyfriend Simon (Charlie Carrick). Quickly, however, we see that Alice’s truth is murkier and more insidious. 

Meeting her long-time chums Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Sophie (Wunmie Mosaku) for drinks, Alice checks her phone compulsively and retreats to the ladies’ room where she anxiously twirls and pulls at her hair until entire tufts end up on the floor. Her friends are concerned, but don’t fully understand how Alice has been manipulated and victimized to the point that she’s practically disappearing. They arrange for a week at Sophie’s family’s lake house, and after much prodding and a well rehearsed lie to Simon, Alice joins them.

Meant to be time away from the stress and distractions of their grownup lives, the week devolves into resentment and arguments as Tess and Sophie try to help Alice understand her own situation — and as Alice desperately clings to her distorted sense of reality. “He doesn’t hurt me or anything,” she insists, and “He wouldn’t love me if he knew how bad I was.”

These are some of the film’s strongest segments. Friends since childhood, Tess and Sophie leverage the closeness and candor of family. Sophie can only lie to them for so long and with their relentless questions, she begins to acknowledge how she’s been brainwashed and gaslighted. Both Francis’s script and Nighy’s direction shine in these scenes.

Less nuanced are the many (too many) scenes of Alice in or under water. And a subplot of a local girl who is missing feels heavy-handed. Alice clearly relates to the assumed victim and her story, and joins the search efforts, no doubt thinking, “There but for the grace of God …” We get it. We get it. But, we didn’t need to.

In a way, Alice, Darling would have been more interesting if we had never even met Simon. Nighy could have taken more time to explore the complicated, but committed, relationships between Alice and the other two women (both Horn and Mosaku are marvelous). However, the movie is billed as a thriller and that thrill arrives in the menacing figure of Simon, who has tracked Alice down and intends to make her pay for her betrayal.

We’ve been here before; 1991’s Sleeping with the Enemy with Julia Roberts immediately comes to mind along with multiple other titles. What makes Alice, Darling so engaging is the central theme of women supporting women, and just how powerful friendship and community can be. 

That and the absolutely extraordinary performance of Kendrick.

Although she earned an Oscar nomination in 2010 for Up in the Air, Kendrick is best known, probably, for her recurring role as a cappella diva Beca in the Pitch Perfect franchise. She does have a fine singing voice (which is shown to even greater advantage in the screen versions of musicals The Last Five Years and Into the Woods), but it’s been easy to dismiss her dramatic abilities. They are on full display here in a performance that is at once deeply internalized, achingly raw, and completely courageous.

The film had a rather quiet theatrical debut at the very end of December, and it’s a shame that Kendrick’s tour de force didn’t receive more notice. I do hope it enables her to break out of the bubbly Beca roles and attract more serious work going forward. She deserves it.

What Alice, Darling and Kendrick’s own story illustrate so well is that virtually anyone — no matter how intelligent, talented, or successful — can find themselves the victim of crushing emotional abuse. But, the film (and, again, Kendrick’s own story) also insist that it’s possible to lose yourself but find yourself again with help from your friends.

Alice, Darling is available to rent from Amazon.

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