starring Anna Kendrick, Kaniehtiio Horn, Charlie Carrick, Wunmi Mosaku
written by Alanna Francis
directed by Mary Nighy
by Walter Chaw Not quite the sequel to Alice, Sweet Alice I was hoping for, Mary Nighy's Alice, Darling is actually a principled character piece about a woman named Alice (Anna Kendrick) stuck in an emotionally controlling--indeed, abusive--relationship with manipulative artist Simon (Charlie Carrick). Simon's determined, as these pricks tend to be, to isolate Alice into a codependent situation in which she rejects her best friends, Sophie (Wunmi Mosaku) and Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn), in favour of a singular fixation on his wants and desires. Ripped, according to Kendrick, from personal experience, Alice, Darling feels, for lack of a better word, real. Real enough that I recognized a few terrible tendencies from the villain in my own dating history as a much younger man--people I've hurt in my past because I was too insecure to be alone, too selfish to be a partner, too stupid to know how to be better. I needed the help of a brilliant and fierce partner to set me straight. It is the work of my life to unlearn the things that were taught to me, and to feel whole enough not to require someone else to complete me. I don't hope to get there; I do hope to get close. No one deserves to be the final piece in an incomplete person's puzzle. It's an uncomfortable thing to see everything you've despised about yourself reflected in a movie character, but there you have it. Simon is a bad guy who doesn't kill people (this isn't a Sleeping with the Enemy thriller), though he's a destructive child who abuses a woman psychologically until she relies on his approval. Alice is through the looking glass, and she knows it.
Alice lies to Simon about going on a birthday retreat for Tess, a little wilderness getaway at a cabin where you'd expect a horror movie to break out, complete with bloody catharsis for the wronged woman. Alice, Darling isn't that. It's more of a hangout movie where Sophie and Tess do their best to draw out the Alice they used to know. The fun Alice who liked to sing along to that Lisa Loeb song, even though she doesn't know all the lyrics--not this version obsessed with what she eats and how she looks, the better to flash on Simon's arm at his gallery shows. Her entire identity has been subsumed by the pressure of serving as a living ornament and an ego-support system for a mediocre man. Her friends cajole and needle; they express love and acceptance and get frustrated and angry. I'm not an expert in these things, but I think interventions are delicate, and those looking to Alice, Darling for a blueprint or a road map should be careful about seeking answers in entertainments that, at least in this instance, are still designed for catharsis. But at its best, Alice, Darling shows that what a person in crisis needs most are people around them who are not bullies, and are present and patient with a process that will be psychologically difficult at least, if not also physically dangerous. The film portrays that in scenes where Tess is called out for being a bit of a bully herself, with a penchant for pointing out the obvious in ways that are never necessary. Alice knows everything already. She is the expert on her own humiliation and dependence. I like how Tess's personality doesn't change after receiving her comeuppance. Instead, it sublimates from directness into a pushy kind of nurturing. She brings Alice a sandwich while Alice takes a bath: "Just in case you're hungry and don't want to say so," she says. It's a lovely character note.
I like Kendrick in this role, too. A lot. She's very good in the first half of the film, acting like she's happy while constantly checking on stray hairs across her forehead, smoothing the creases of her meticulously tailored outfits, and clinging to Simon like he was a life preserver on a choppy sea--one made of broken glass and splintered wood. There's a scene where Sophia teaches Alice how to chop wood using a maul that's at least as tall as Alice, and the act of splitting is so necessary for Alice that she picks up a half-shorn branch and finishes the job with her bare hands. There's a lot going on in Nighy's direction. In the picture's last half, as Alice begins to come back to herself, Kendrick allows a more natural ease to seep into her performance. Her face relaxes a little bit, and her smile is quicker to dawn. She's tremendous here. I've liked her often in the past as a specific variety of pinched, slightly officious, tightly-wound hero or villain--stuff like Camp and the Pitch Perfect films and especially Up in the Air. What Alice, Darling does for her type-A persona is humanize it, suggesting they're all variations on a woman forced into a specific role at odds, maybe constantly, with who she is or would like to be. I don't think Alice, Darling does much more than paint a picture of a young woman caught in the sway of a powerful influence, drawn to it for her deficiencies of self-worth. There are depths and complexities to disentangling from destructive relationships and patriarchal expectations in matters of traditional gender roles--how we mark success and the things we sacrifice of ourselves to achieve it--and I doubt it's possible to catch them all in one shot and still produce a picture free of the unbecoming didacticism that tends to undo projects in this vein. What I mean to say is that Alice, Darling is the moment Kendrick gains a third dimension, and I was glad to see it.