Alice, Darling review – Anna Kendrick compels in chilling relationship drama

Toronto film festival: A career-best performance from the Oscar nominee anchors a smart and sensitive look at emotional abuse

“But he doesn’t hurt me though,” Alice insists to her two oldest friends, both staring at her with combined sadness and exhaustion. In the unsettling and unvarnished drama Alice, Darling, Alice’s boyfriend does hurt her but probably not in the ways we often hear about and definitely not in the ways we often see on screen.

Films about domestic abuse tend to rely on the aesthetic shock of seeing someone physically hurt their partner, an undeniable gut punch but one that too frequently takes precedent over the more insidious and inescapable ways of exerting control over someone. There was a tough and troubling TV one-off called I Am Nicola in 2019 that saw Vicky McClure trapped in a toxic relationship that was heralded by a domestic violence charity at the time for the importance of showing how someone can be knocked down without a single punch. There’s an equally devastating and necessary grind to Alice, Darling, a buzz-free Toronto film festival premiere that deserves to have everyone talking.

Alice is played by Anna Kendrick, an actor who doesn’t always connect with some of her overly cutesy comedic work but is exceptionally, hauntingly effective here, playing a woman frazzled by a particular brand of private anxiety. In the opening scene, she meets her two closest friends for dinner (Wunmi Mosaku and Kaniehtiio Horn), a girls’ night punctuated by the sounds of Alice receiving texts, each causing her eyes to blink a little bit faster or her fingers to tap just that bit louder. She’s in a relationship with handsome artist Simon (Charlie Carrick) and he likes to check in.

While Alanna Francis’s intelligent and uncommonly subtle script doesn’t take long to show us that Simon is coercive, it keeps us unsure over just how coercive he might be. We’re shown less of his destructive perfectionism in action and more of the impact it has on Alice – obsessively manicuring, lecturing about the dangers of sugar, pulling out increasingly large chunks of her hair – and director Mary Nighy, daughter of Bill, making her debut, chooses to show us only the briefest flashbacks to Simon at his worst, a restraint that proves horribly potent, effect prioritized over cause. Alice’s friends invite her to a cottage out of town for a birthday celebration, just the three of them, and Alice relents, telling Simon she has to go away on a work trip. At the house, her behavior gets harder to tolerate, oscillating between nervy, difficult and confrontational, the anger and frustration that’s been building up with no place to go threatening to explode.

It becomes an unintentional intervention as Alice’s relationship is suddenly dragged into conversations outside of the ones she has with herself. The nasty things she’s been conditioned to believe – that she’s selfish, that she’s unfair, that she should feel shame, that she’s just not good – combusting once air is allowed in. It’s a tough process and Francis avoids tired therapy tropes both in how she shows the jagged nature of Alice’s journey (steps forward and steps back alternating) and how the women speak to each other, with a bracing, often cruel, frankness that only the oldest of friends are allowed to have. It’s written with such depth of feeling and particularity that only experience can provide. The limited range of abuse narratives – which often feel filled in with basics learned from watching other abuse narratives – has led us to expect a type, perhaps withdrawn and lacking in confidence, usually wearing long sleeves to hide the bruises. But Alice is difficult, often incredibly annoying to be around, angry and spiky, forced to over-sexualize the way she looks rather than retreat. It’s a character written with an odd singularity we don’t usually see.

Kendrick gives a performance of equal specificity; believably, uncomfortably consumed by the sort of deep-rooted anxiety that makes others feel just as on edge. It’s deeply unpleasant to see her spiral (the grimly over-emphasized sound design of her yanking out longer pieces of hair is truly wrenching) and with the actor recently speaking out about an experience of being with a psychologically abusive boyfriend not long before she signed onto the movie, it feels as if the pain and anger come from a real place. It’s her finest performance to date and while their characters aren’t given that much beyond the basics, Mosaku and Horn are both excellent, their every line and decision made to ring true, an authentic dynamic that leads to an incredibly moving moment of extreme protection in the last act.

It’s a chilling little film, avoiding maximalism at every turn, a bold debut from Nighy (whose only real slip-up is a score that can feel dull and uninspired) and a difficult reminder of a difficult experience. The chill will linger for a while.


Benjamin Lee in Toronto

The GuardianTramp

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