2023, R, 90 min. Directed by Mary Nighy. Starring Anna Kendrick, Kaniehtiio Horn, Wunmi Mosaku, Charlie Carrick, Mark Winnick.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Jan. 20, 2023
It begins with thread wrapped around a finger, wrapped so tight that it cuts into flesh, the flesh of Alice, a slender, doll-like thirtysomething who looks a lot younger than she is, teenlike, chaste but coquettish, always clad in above-the-knee summer dresses. That doesn’t come easy: It takes effort, habit, ritual to stay exactly how Simon wants her. Because if Simon doesn’t want her, then who else possibly could?
It’s not often that a film seems impossible to consider without its lead actor, but the blurred line between Anna Kendrick and Alice is part of the quietly harrowing power of Alice, Darling. Kendrick has spoken about being in exactly this kind of domineering, psychologically damaging, abusive relationship, and the heartbreaking introspection she brings to the titular character is extraordinary. But it’s also her physicality, not just her experiences. Kendrick is tiny, and in film after film she’s been cast as larger than her frame: the foul-mouthed and foul-tempered Stacey in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, big-voiced Beca in the Pitch Perfect films, the wily agent Kendra Glack in The Day Shall Come, but that's almost the easy way to cast her. It's braver to embrace that there is negative space around her, like the yearning gaps between her Jill and Ron Livingston's Chris in Joe Swanberg's Drinking Buddies, or the growing void around crumbling Cathy in The Last Five Years. Here, it’s the space that is constantly inhabited by her boyfriend, Simon (Carrick), even when he is not actually there. It’s the constant texts and demands for texts, the knowledge that there will be accountability when she gets home. It's not like he physically abuses her, she tells her friends after she heads out (without permission) on a weeklong break in a cottage. After all, why should he when, unbidden, she does that to herself, shredding herself for his approval?
The matter-of-fact delivery of that line is chilling, but pivotal in and indicative of how first-time feature director Mary Nighy brings life to the script by Alanna Francis and Mark Van de Ven (The Rest of Us). Nighy places the audience inside Alice’s experience, inside the warped logic that Simon has wrapped around her and forced her to fit into. At the same time, we are stood alongside Lovecraft Country’s Mosaku (excellent as the supportive spirit in Alice’s life) and Letterkenny and Mohawk star Horn (the embodiment of exasperation) as they try to unpack what’s happening with Alice. After all, they are her friends, the support system from which Simon has purposefully alienated her, and trained her to keep up the alienation even when he is not around. There’s something wrenching about how Kendrick as Alice wants to lean into her old friendships even as her newly instilled instincts keep her within her boundaries. That’s where Alice, Darling excels, in creating tensions from dichotomies: as in when Alice does something clearly illogical, but the audience understands how it makes perfect sense to her.
In its often distressing, sometimes nauseating depiction of a woman caught in weaponized co-dependence, Alice, Darling is rarely an easy watch. Yet it is always captivating, and that all comes back to Kendrick in what may well be her most powerful performance to date. It takes audiences deep into the experience of a traumatic relationship with compassion, understanding and well-placed anger, and yet leaves you with one wish for Alice: the space to breathe.