Alice, Darling is unassuming. Employing the frame and structure of a meandering, dialogic drama, the film, directed by Mary Nighy and written by Alanna Francis and Mark Van de Ven (who edits the story), for the most part, is quiet and observant. But as it chugs along, there slowly creeps in moments of intense horror; there are times when the film jolts and quivers, throws us into the frenetic and frenzying mind of Alice as she panics and breaks. Because actually, Alice, Darling is, flooringly, what it looks and feels like to be in an abusive relationship, and then what it looks like to be buoyed out of it.
Perhaps lulling us into a sense of security is part of the point. The film begins with a girls’ night out. Anna Kendrick is Alice, and she joins her two friends Sophie (Wunmi Mosaku) and Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn) for dinner and cheeky drinks. The girls have grown distant, specifically, Alice has grown distant from Tess and Sophie, and so they decide on a week-long getaway to Sophie’s family’s remote cottage for Tess’s thirtieth birthday. Throughout the dinner, as the women talk, Alice’s phone pings endlessly. We learn that her boyfriend Simon (Charlie Carrick) has been beleaguering Alice all night, asking for her whereabouts, asking for nudes. We slowly learn that this is Simon’s MO — he keeps a close eye on Alice and who she hangs out with, all in addition to forcing her, in circuitously abusive ways, to constantly uplift him even as he berates her. The bulk of the film focuses on Alice, Sophie, and Tess at the cottage; Sophie and Tess slowly learn of Simon’s horrifyingly toxic ways, and walk Alice through the realization of her own abuse.
Kendrick delivers a remarkable performance as the fragile and scared Alice, unconsciously perhaps aware of her predicament, but keeping up appearances for her conscious mind, which wants a picture-perfect love that society has primed her to want, and for her best friends. Horn, too, delivers a delicately layered performance — she’s become a household name for her role in Letterkenny as the dangerously cunning and delightfully deadpan Tanis, but here her performance is intricate as to warrant your sharpest scalpel. Horn’s Tess is stubborn and jealous of Simon, for his professional success and for his ability to steal Alice from her and Sophie; she is simultaneously reserved with her poor judgment of Simon, whom she loathes as much as she misses who Alice used to be, and also able to viciously dish back the meanness that Alice defensively throws at her and Sophie in an attempt to protect her fracturing vision of love. Kendrick’s and Horn’s characters and performances are stunning in this movie; the actors deftly and shrewdly understand Alice and Tess, respectively, and deliver performances that feel lived in and warm, but also blistering as they uncover each their characters’ unsavory aspects.
The film has a cunning understanding of what goes on in the minds of those who are being emotionally abused and controlled. We meet Alice not at the point when her relationship with Simon is just beginning, but at the point at which much of their lives together have become rote. Accordingly, the film shows us that much of Simon’s gaslighting has made a home within Alice’s mind — Alice has internalized a lot of the irrational belittlement Simon has hurled at her to fuse her to himself. Often at the cottage, the film depicts Alice muttering things to herself that Simon might say to her were he there.
Some of the most moving and most destabilizing moments in the film are when the camera, which for the most part trails about Alice almost as though it were swimming or floating lazily about her, observant and decidedly outside of her, draws in on Kendrick’s face and the edges of the frames seem to vibrate and blur. These are moments when panic attacks are triggered for Alice, and in these frenzied moments we seem to travel within her head, seeing her shaky form as though we were behind her eyes looking at our own reflection in the mirror, our image in our minds watery and deformed, ugly and exaggerated and red, from all the tears in our eyes. As we watch Alice work haplessly to steady her breathing, her hands unconsciously move up into her head and work to yank out strands, clumps of her hair. She hurts herself in these moments and they’re deeply unnerving to watch, perhaps they’re enlightening, instructive even. (As I watched Alice collapse and scream, her mind saying mean things to her, Simon’s words, I realized that I have behaved in this way, collapsing in bathrooms private and public; I realized that I have said mean things to myself that another once said to me. As I watched Alice and saw the sorrow in Tess and Sophie’s eyes, I realized that maybe there’s a name for what happened, happens to me.) When Alice doubles over in the bathroom at the cottage, she gets so small, literally as small as Simon has told her she is, and she pulls out her hair as a macabre kind of self-punishment, perhaps for affirming Simon’s low opinion of her (for being as “bad” as he says she is), for stepping out of line. During these kinds of episodes, as the body works reflexively to keep one alive, one feels nothing but immense hatred for oneself, a desire to erase oneself, these are moments of red-hot anger commingled with the kind of fear that might set others running, but here, Alice simply locks herself in the bathroom and huddles in the corner on the floor, panicking, shaking, almost beyond wishing for the worst, because the worst is already happening.
The body doesn’t need a reason or cause behind panic or fear; panic feels like panic regardless of whether one is faced with a bear or one’s own gaslit mind. Kendrick is stunning to watch in these scenes, and she depicts Alice’s fear with understanding and kindness — I wonder whether she has delivered such a complex performance before. The script is tender with her, too, in the sense that it portends hope for her through Sophie and Tess. The moments these women spend together at the cottage are perhaps some of the safest moments Alice has experienced in a while, and Nighy, thankfully, has the film linger in the sweeter moments. The week crawls, and though it is rough, one finds oneself dreading, fearing the moment Carrick’s Simon will return.
Alice, Darling is tough to watch and perhaps ought to come with a trigger warning for the ways in which it visually depicts the horror of erasing and losing oneself through Alice and her panic attacks. Carrick’s Simon is in the film so little, but he casts such a heavy and looming shadow over Alice that it’s impossible to forget him at all, except for when Sophie and Tess hold Alice. Then and only then is there some hope that Alice will learn to love not only herself, but also realize that there are more salutary types of love than romantic love. Watch Alice, Darling, but when you do, make sure to surround yourself with soft love.