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'Alice Darling' Review: When 'Love' Is Really About Control

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A few minutes after “Alice, Darling,” audiences might be reminded of how 2020’s “The Invisible Man” began: Anna Kendrick drags herself out of bed at dawn, struggling not to wake the partner we briefly assume she has. is about to run away. But whereas Elisabeth Moss’ vehicle was a monster movie, bolstered by her abusive boyfriend backstory, director Mary Nighy’s debut puts a woman’s difficult exit from a dangerous relationship at the forefront. This is a quietly powerful drama about manipulation and psychological damage, receiving a year-end qualification at AMC Sunset 5 in West Hollywood on December 30th, before expanding to AMC theaters nationwide on January 20th.

In an unnamed town, Alice (Kendrick) arrives late and leaves early from a late night out with best friends Sophia (Wunmi Mosaku) and Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn). We can tell she’s distracted, even scared, sneaking into the bathroom to pull her hair out – a nervous tic that escalates as the film unfolds. When we meet the boyfriend she rushed home to, he seems nice enough. But small “off” notes and disturbing mental flashbacks soon reveal that successful artist Simon (Charlie Carrick) is a control freak whose tormenting doubts and other neuroses are all taken out on Alice. He undermined her trust in every way, being both demanding and belittling, envious of the slightest attention she bestowed on anyone but himself.

So when the three women organize a weeklong lakeside vacation to celebrate Tess’s 30th birthday, Alice can only get away with lying, telling Simon she’s on a mandatory work trip. While not physically abusive, he has created such a paranoid wedge between her and the rest of the world that she is now barely able to partake in this desperately needed escape with trusted friends. Instead, she isolates herself, defensively pushing away their concerns, demonstrating ways in which her thinking has been skewed (especially where food and body image are concerned)-while pushing away his constant needy text messages from him.

About halfway through here, Alice has an irrational outburst that reveals the extent to which she has suppressed the cumulative panic. Soon after, she begins to confide the ugly reality of her domestic situation. But even having her phone taken away by well-meaning friends isn’t enough to keep Simon away.

Alanna Francis’ subtle script veers into a subplot about a young woman missing in this rural area, hinting at murder-mystery elements that we anticipate could lead into more gender-oriented territory. This really tastes like a red herring; “Alice, Darling” may frustrate those who expect its denouement to be achieved through more violent or melodramatic means than the filmmakers intended.

But the focus here is not so much on the object of Alice’s terror as on the emotional underpinning of the friendships that Simon (naturally) did his best to distance her from and which may yet prove her salvation. Although the word “intervention” is never said, this is the indeed essence: how the people who really love you are in danger of telling you who is just pretending, to your obvious detriment. Breaking a destructive codependency is so difficult that sometimes others must deal the first destructive blow to you.

It’s a strong role for Kendrick, whose character may seem less than fully defined, but that’s part of the point – Alice’s boyfriend insidiously wore down any part of her personality that didn’t prioritize him. Kaniehtiio Horn and Wunmi Mosaku are very good as that rare thing on screen, BFF figures with palpable inner life rather than just being satellites of the protagonist. Carrick is careful not to make Simon a noticeable monster. As far as we see him, he is charming and attractive enough for us to understand how Alice was gradually sucked into a relationship that works like a slow-acting poison.

If the film could have used a stronger sense of catharsis towards the end, it’s still good that Nighy and Francis exercise such judicious pre-restraint. It keeps “Alice, Darling” away from any sense of artifice, the unspoken concern in Kendrick’s every gesture maintaining just enough tension despite the lack of overt suspense devices. The careful editing is complemented in particular by Owen Pallett’s original piano-based score and Mike McLaughlin’s pretty but unshowy cinematography.