‘There are many different kinds of love other than just romantic love,’ is a message that I feel I’ve been seeing quite frequently in cinema lately. It’s a good message, the importance of which is underscored in Alice, Darling, the feature debut from director Mary Nighy, in which Anna Kendrick plays a woman trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship, who goes away on a short trip to a lake house with her unwitting two best friends (Wunmi Mosaku and Kaniehtiio Horn, both good here). In this film’s case, the message about various kinds of love is stated quite explicitly to Alice. It’s what she needs to hear at the time.
In a world in which it is estimated that a woman or girl dies at the hands of an intimate partner or family member approximately every eleven minutes—a trend that has actually seen a worsening in recent years, with mega-popular social media personalities and mainstream politicians pushing violently misogynistic messaging—the topics explored in Alice, Darling, are weighty ones indeed. The film takes things appropriately seriously, and the effects on Alice are dramatic and disturbing to see, without being exploitative or reveling in women’s suffering. Anna Kendrick’s impressive performance anchors this story, and the camera is often tight in on her features, as a roiling storm of emotions plays out underneath the carefully controlled exterior, visible only to those who already have an idea of what she’s going through, which is effectively no one.
Alice is in an outwardly happy and healthy relationship with semi-successful artist, Simon (an effectively duplicitous Charlie Carrick). The audience’s first hint that something isn’t quite right comes right at the start of the film, when we see Alice absent-mindedly coil a few strands of her hair around her finger while in a cab. Except where most people would stop tightening the coil and play with it loosely, Alice keeps going, twisting and turning until the tip of her finger goes purple, and tugging on her hair with it. It’s not long before we see clumps of hair coming out. Her friends, however, have no idea that anything is amiss.
Alice, Darling uses a number of methods to signal the reality of the situation to us. An often disjointed editing style serves to take us into Alice’s deteriorating mindset; the sound mixing on her phone’s frequent text message alert cutting across whatever else might be happening in her life makes it obvious that someone is very demanding of her time and attention (to say the least), irrespective of the time or context; and the uneasy score layered over what would otherwise be innocuous daily activities means that we are searching for what is wrong straight away. Some of these techniques work better than others—that score veers into too-intrusive territory at times, threatening to distract from its point, but overall it’s clear that director Nighy (we’ll get to that surname later) has the ‘Show, don’t tell!’, rule of cinema well memorized.
It’s a shame, then, that a little bit too much is said in Alice, Darling. Alice’s own journey involves getting to a place where she feels safe enough to say—to tell her support network the reality of what her partner is like, in defiance of the manufactured reality that he, like so many abusers, shows to the world—but a tad more subtlety in the dialogue scenes between her and her friends would have enriched the film, and its emotional core would have resonated stronger. Though the film does a good job of showing the strength and power of female friendships, with perhaps the best filmmaking on show in a scene near the end that communicates a huge amount with some excellent blocking and acting from the core cast, it comes up short in the same way that so many films about a group of friends do: It never fully convinces you that these characters really are friends. They say they are, but we don’t feel the weight and history of their friendship through the screen. Alice, Darling makes this harder for itself due to the nature of what its protagonist is going through. Abusive partners often isolate their targets from their friends, and to depict that distance while simultaneously creating a believable backstory is not an easy task.
Alice, Darling is a decent enough debut, sincere and heartfelt, shot competently, with an important message that isn’t quite matched by its quality.
Mandatory new feature: Nepo baby alert. Mary Nighy is, as you might have guessed, actor Bill Nighy’s daughter.