Directed by Mary Nighy
Written by Alanna Francis
Starring Anna Kendrick, Wunmi Mosaku and Kaniehtiio Horn
Classification N/A; 90 minutes
Opens in select theatres Feb. 3, also available on-demand
The new drama Alice, Darling does so much right that it is acutely painful when it goes wrong.
The directorial debut of Mary Nighy (daughter of newly Oscar-nominated actor Bill), the drama starts off with an air of uncertain, nervy energy, introducing to us Alice (Anna Kendrick), a career-minded young woman enjoying her best life in Toronto, or at least an unnamed major metropolis that never hides its Toronto-ness. Alice seems to be successful at work and home, living in a fashionable apartment with her charming artist boyfriend, Simon (Charlie Carrick). But look closer just an inch, and there is something deeply unsettling about Alice’s bubble of a life.
She is constantly checking her phone, as if terrified she might miss the most important call or text of her life. She ducks out early of social engagements, leaving her two best friends, Tess (Canadian actress Kaniehtiio Horn) and Sophie (Wunmi Mosaku), annoyed and perplexed. And then there is the constant, pained needling of Simon, who becomes more irksome with every passing second. It soon becomes clear that Alice is trapped inside a dangerous relationship filled with gaslighting and toxic co-dependency. And while she knows how much trouble she is in, Alice cannot seem to escape it herself, as Simon’s grip is so strong that she constantly defends and justifies (to herself, and others) his actions.
With the conflict swiftly and subtly set up, all the elements are in place for a traditional victim-to-victor drama: one woman’s single-minded flight from a very bad situation. But Nighy and screenwriter Alanna Francis are thankfully not interested in storytelling tradition, and instead focus their film on an ostensibly more complicated tale of friendship and community. After being coaxed into taking a weekend vacation with Tess and Sophie to the woods, Alice is surprised to realize that the trip is actually an intervention of sorts. If she cannot on her own break the bonds of Simon, then her friends will help Alice see the truth of her relationship.
That is a refreshing approach that both minimizes the amount of time we have to spend with a repellent creation like Simon, and also a clever way for a film to explore the complex inner lives of three strong female characters. And the actresses are more than game, with Kendrick especially courageous in breaking the funny-perky-nerdy-but-cool-girl image she has been perfecting in her Pitch Perfect franchise. As Alice is pushed further and further to recognize Simon’s pettiness and anger, Kendrick is forced to explore dark, uncomfortable, complicated places – a challenge that the actress has rarely been asked to take on.
Yet as much as the film explores the ins and outs of Alice’s persona, it neglects to give almost any colour to the women tasked with supporting the title character. There are small, fleeting attempts at offering Tess and Sophie traits – one loves to bake, the other has a chip on her shoulder about her career – but these simply aren’t the layered characters needed to bounce the dramatic tension back and forth between them and Alice. Naturally, Nighy’s film wants Alice, and by extension Tess and Sophie, to triumph in their struggle to exorcise Simon from their lives. But when two-thirds of your film’s characters are severely underdeveloped, it becomes hard to centre any sympathies.
This rather large problem is compounded by a late-film twist – or, really, a small, tiny twist-ette – that threatens to turn the film into some kind of eye-rolling revenge thriller. Fortunately this never happens, but by this point it’s almost too late. Alice is close to securing her freedom, but the audience is stuck wondering just how she got there.