Alice, Darling premieres Jan. 20 exclusively in AMC Theaters.
Films about psychological abuse within relationships run the gamut of effectiveness. The scale goes everywhere from the lowkey cheesy Lifetime movie approach to the recent The Invisible Man (2020) kind of terrifying. But sometimes the more intimate approach can pack the biggest emotional wallop, as is the case with director Mary Nighy’s debut feature, Alice, Darling. Essentially a character study of the impact that gaslighting and manipulation by one partner over another has over time, writer Alanna Francis, Nighy, and star Anna Kendrick, as Alice, together paint a raw portrait of what being under a quietly conniving thumb in an isolating relationship looks like. While at times uncomfortable and bleak, Alice’s story is ultimately hopeful and important in portraying what a victim of mental abuse goes through inside and out.
Unlike other abuse stories that often feel compelled to hang their narratives on dramatic inciting incidents or heinous acts, Alice, Darling instead tracks the minutiae that takes up so much space in Alice’s life with her artist boyfriend, Simon (Charlie Carrick). In an established relationship, it becomes immediately clear that Alice is driven to distraction by their dynamic. There are plenty of subtle tells from Alice twirling her hair with painful intensity around her index finger to her immediate Pavlovian response to his constant texts during a rare dinner with her best friends from childhood, Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Sophia (Wunmi Mosaku). There’s almost an invisible weight that sits on Alice’s pinched shoulders that she casually blames on work stress, or her own copious flaws to deflect the increasingly piercing glares of her concerned friends. She agrees to go on a girl’s week away to the woods at Sophie’s family cabin to celebrate Tess’ birthday, but we find out that Alice has to conjure a sudden “work trip” to get Simon to agree to time away from him.
Like an addict, Alice initially doesn’t fare well sequestered away from Simon. It’s apparent this is the first time she’s been away from him for any extended period which gives her the opportunity to think about the everyday casual grievances that Simon does to chip away at her self-esteem, her own desires, and any sense of peace she has about herself. Nighy uses some highly effective techniques to get us under Alice’s skin, framing everything in close up, with an almost disarming intimacy that puts us in her hyper fixated space. As Alice allows herself some bucolic peace, Nighy disrupts it by deftly inserting snippets of memories where Simon consistently takes his disappointments out verbally on Alice; sexually coerces her in overbearing ways that she can’t reject without repercussions; or nudges behavioral changes regarding her weight. Each has quietly shifted Alice to orient her whole self to Simon’s needs, and the managing of him becomes her 24/7 existence.
What ensues is Alice’s slow unpeeling by Tess and Sophia. Their once close relationships have suffered from Simon’s imposed isolation, and they serve to remind Alice who she used to be. All three women are exceptional in portraying the realness of these long-term friendships, with all its history and hurts. It’s a testament to their talent that nothing that ensues amongst them is explosive, aside from Alice’s panic attacks. Change and truth happens via talks while chopping wood, or paddle boarding or during the morning after a night of drinks and dancing. It’s in these commonplace moments that Alice comes back to herself, as her friends become increasingly appalled realizing exactly how much they’ve missed what’s happening right under their noses. It’s those quiet epiphanies that the film does best, exposing what a gradual pulling away does to a person and their circle.
Less successful is a side story involving a missing girl that Alice finds herself drawn to helping find. It’s never fully fleshed out as necessary to the story, aside from serving as an on-the-nose cautionary tale and a resource for future manipulation Simon tries to use against Alice. The film would have been fine without it and perhaps benefited from pruning it altogether to spare the scattered focus that doesn’t quite fit. But overall Nighy has a firm hand with the rest of the story, capturing incredible tension in the mundane that is made menacing by Simon’s intensity and brazenness. You walk away from Alice, Darling with the sobering certainty that watching someone fall apart in the wake of that relentless focus, and their scramble to navigate it, is as chillingly effective as any showy horror film out there right now, and will linger just as effectively.