Alice, Darling begins on a subtle note with the title character (played by Anna Kendrick) in a taxi heading out to a night with her two friends, Sophia (Wunmi Mosaku) and Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn). However, there’s something subtle that seems off about this. Alice is twirling her hair to the point of her finger getting red from how tightly she’s wounding it. Once at the restaurant, Alice is distracted, nervous, and often at the mercy of the sound of the parade of text messages coming through her phone. Her boyfriend Simon (Charlie Carrick) is the epicenter for all these behaviors that become more pronounced as the film continues.
When he first enters the story, Simon seems charming, good-looking, and relatively successful as an artist. But things on the surface aren’t precisely what is testing behind closed doors. The sneaky nature of emotional abuse is dangerous and scary – a device both director Mary Nighy and writer Alanna Francis strive to show in doses. At first, you have to blink at the insidious things before you miss them. Simon is on a strict-no-sugar diet, so Alice has to be. When Alice is invited to stay at a cabin for a week to celebrate Tess’s 30th birthday, she has to lie that it’s a work trip.
The accumulation of Simon’s gaslight barrage completely distorts Alice’s world to the effect of her shrinking herself into the tinniest box. Alice, Darling is not so much a thriller but a dire cautionary tale on the sneakiest forms of spousal abuse. Mike McLaughlin’s claustrophobic style of cinematography and the memorable, sometimes haunting performance from Anna Kendrick accurately depicts a woman looking for an escape hatch. While at the cabin, Alice isolates herself from Sophia and Tess and refers to things automatically, deferring to Simon as he’s many miles away. Even when she has a moment of peace, a flashback of callous words and uncomfortableness washes over Alice like a tidal wave.
As the film progresses, there’s a subplot about a missing woman in the town. Through some overheard conversations, some of the townspeople think it could have been someone the lady knew that caused this to happen. While this doesn’t necessarily play into the thriller aspect, it does in Alice, Darling’s drama set in several ways. In one case, the missing woman is what could happen if abuse goes to another level. The film doesn’t indicate that Simon has physically harmed Alice (she even pushes back on her friends about that). However, with his manipulation and possessiveness, who knows? There’s also an aspect of things Alice has lost – such as the complete feeling of individualism and autonomy over her state of being.
While Alice, Darling tackles many tough subjects, it also shines a light on genuine friendship. Sophia is sympathetic and easy, while Tess is more in-your-face to Alice about her circumstances. Once Alice can thaw the frozen nature Simon’s inner insecurities have put her in, she can recognize people do care. That’s hard to see when the human totem of your suffering has insulated you in a world where everything is perceived to be your fault.
No, this story doesn’t find itself walking the path of exact and violent revenge. It’s more about a character trying to find the person she sees in the mirror. Alice has frequent panic attacks and often tears her hair out. She becomes disoriented at the thought she could be deceiving Simon – but she’s just living her life. The fact that a relationship could upend the spirit to the point where the person can’t even fathom it is happening is an abuser's cruelest trick.