ALICE, DARLING – Review by Nadine Whitney

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Coercive control is being recognised as one of the predominant forms of domestic violence. The perpetrator may not use physical violence on the abused party, but the result is a devastating lack of confidence, fear of verbal and emotional retribution, susceptibility to gaslighting, and the near complete alienation from friends and family. A person using coercive control will often “love bomb” their victim one moment and then blame them for all the failures in the relationship the next. People who are under the grip of someone using coercive control have often had their personality so distorted by the abuser that they internalise shame and make excuses for their actions. Because there are no tell-tale bruises (although coercive controllers may use physical violence) often the victim’s suffering goes unnoticed by the outside world – a world they’ve been trained not to trust.

Mary Nighy’s debut feature Alice, Darling shows a woman drowning (a symbolic water metaphor is consistently used). Alice (Anna Kendrick) seems well put together. Her wardrobe is expensive, her career appears stable, and she has a loving boyfriend in the upcoming artist, Simon (Charlie Carrick). However as Nighy homes in on Alice’s emotional state the audience is aware that something is deeply wrong. On a night where she is meeting her long-term friends, Sophie (Wunmi Mosaku) and Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn) Alice twists her hair around her finger until the tip turns red. She arrives at the restaurant where she smiles and jokes with her friends but jumps every time she receives a text message.

Excusing herself to go to the bathroom Alice snaps a sexy selfie for Simon (who clearly demands constant contact from her. When she emerges Sophie and Tess propose going to a cabin to celebrate Tess’ thirtieth birthday. They’ve been apart too long Tess and Sophie explain, and it’s important to reconnect over a significant milestone for Tess.

When Alice arrives home she finds to her distress that a flirtatious waiter has dropped him number into her coat pocket. The act causes her to panic and destroy the piece of paper. It also vaguely excites her that another man has looked at her. Torn by feelings of desire and guilt Alice takes out her shame upon herself by ripping her hair out. Self-harm in this manner has become a norm for her and it is not unusual for someone caught in an abuse situation to self-punish in a way that won’t be obvious to outsiders.

Simon arrives home and they have sex in the shower. The next day they take a walk to get coffee and pastries. Nighy crafts this scene into a canny technique to inform the audience how controlled Alice is. She is confused that Simon is allowing her to have a sugary treat (she’s painfully thin) and while he is in the bakery she rehearses lying to him about having to take a business trip to cover for her week away with the women. Simon’s response is to belittle her job and disapprove of her going. Although it seems apparent that as she is the one providing most of the income for the couple there is little he can do to stop her.

Once Alice is no longer in the city she is still glued to her phone. A text message received on the journey upsets her so much that she has to get out of the car and vomit. The text message is from Simon wishing her a safe flight. For the first few days at the cabin Alice is alienated from Sophie and especially Tess. Although Simon is not there he is present in every moment – Nighy creates flashbacks so the audience can fully comprehend how controlling Simon is and how changeable. He follows the abuser’s playbook and has so warped Alice’s notion of self-worth that the smallest transgression on her behalf is a possible travesty. He texts her at 2.30am to tell her he misses her. She is not allowed to even have a full night’s sleep without him reminding her she belongs to him.

What Alice is unaware of is that Sophie and Tess have been planning the getaway as quite a literal get away from Simon. They have noticed their friend is a wreck and is spouting toxic ideas that Simon has instilled in her. She is a wreck – she is anxious to the point of panic attacks and harbours massive anger and resentment that she has no outlet for.

Layered on top of Alanna Francis’ honest and generally to-the-point script is a subplot where a local woman in the village has gone missing. Alice joins the search for Andrea and as she does she overhears a woman say, “If she’s hurt it’s probably someone she knows.” On a conscious and unconscious level Alice is aware that she might become Andrea.

As Sophie and Tess become more forceful in their intervention with Tess taking Alice’s phone and wallet away so that she can’t leave to go home to Simon, Alice’s façade crumbles. She doesn’t know who she is without the man who claims to love her despite her numerous projected faults. “He wouldn’t love me if he knew how bad I am” she cries in desperation at one moment and then claims in another “Simon loves me. I am happy.” Tess is especially vigorous in her methods to help Alice reclaim herself which leads to conflict and Sophie acting as a kind of peacemaker between the two. Alice recites Simon’s opinion of Tess back to her but frames it as her own.

Between Sophie, Tess, and Simon, Alice is tiny. Kendrick uses her diminutive frame to an astonishing effect as she is playing a woman reduced. Kendrick’s performance is subtle and poignant as she infuses Alice with nervous tics and an inability to make eye contact. She deliberately looks other to her more bountiful and self-possessed friends whose comfort in their own skin she has no idea how to claim for herself.

There are moments when Alanna Francis’ script overplays metaphors and uses cues that are almost trite (Lisa Loeb’s Stay (I Missed You) as a key tune that the friends perform, or Tess reading parts of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway to Alice), but it mostly allows Alice’s co-dependent predicament to evolve in a naturalistic and authentic way.

Alice, Darling is a frank examination of a common but hard to tackle phenomenon of abuse. Nighy’s film may be imperfect in places, but it is important and gives voice to a group of near silent victims and places emphasis on how essential it is for those who suffer to have a support network.

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Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney is a seasoned film critic and scholar. Based in Melbourne, Australia, Nadine contributes regularly to FILMINK, The Curb, and Mr Movies Film Blog. She holds a degree in cinema theory and cultural studies. Her specialty is surrealism in cinema. She is as passionate about cats as she is about film. She is co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association and a member of FIPRESCI.