Alice (Anna Kendrick) doesn’t see herself as a victim of abuse. In fact, she insists she isn’t. Why then when Alice and her friends (played by Kaniehtiio Horn and Wunmi Mosaku) come across a poster for a missing girl presumed to have been killed by someone close to her, can she not shake off the spectral feeling of connection to this total stranger’s tragedy? After all, she says to her friends and herself, it’s not like her boyfriend (Charlie Carrick) “hurts me or anything”.
What Alice can’t yet see – and what forms the core revelation of the understated but poignant Alice, Darling – is that abuse is not always a single action. It lives and breathes within her relationship with Simon. It is the ever-present, sickly dread that resides in the pit of Alice’s stomach, which dictates that she must cater to Simon’s every whim and sexual advance out of fear of what he may do otherwise.
With Alice, Darling, director Mary Nighy (daughter of actor Bill) delicately exposes how internalised and invisible the experience of narcissistic abuse can be. It’s one that, for Alice, at least, exists almost entirely within the confines of her phone. She stares at it, dead-eyed but fixated. When will the next text from Simon arrive? What will it mean? And what might it secretly demand? Behind locked bathroom doors, Alice compulsively tears her hair out and bundles it into tiny, wiry balls of shame.
Nighy does, occasionally, revert to the standard symbols of sad women. One day, I hope cinema will move on from the image of female protagonists submerged in bathtubs, drowning in their own oppression. Alice, Darling remains striking, however, thanks to how subtly Alanna Francis’s screenplay presents the warning signs of Simon’s behaviour. We see him return from the crowded, lauded opening of his art show only to declare it “a complete f***ing trainwreck”. The unspoken expectation being that Alice will tend his ego and reassure him of his genius.
Kendrick has been candid when speaking about the film. The actor recently revealed that she drew much of her performance from a recent experience of her own. Her affinity with the material is especially evident in how authentically she renders Alice’s dissociative spells. There’s that glazed-over look in her eye and the bodily tension of someone trying to crawl inside of themselves.
It’s particularly refreshing to see how uninterested Kendrick and Nighy are in making Alice saintly. She’s prickly and argumentative when confronted about her relationship. When a friend softly points out her patterns of disordered eating, Alice shovels handfuls of chocolate into her mouth like a stubborn child. The film wouldn’t work, either, without Horn and Mosaku, who find that same space for imperfection in their performances as loving friends who don’t know quite how to help. That is the ultimate, noble-hearted dream behind Alice, Darling – that there’s a friend out there, maybe even an Alice, who will see this film as the wake-up call they need.
Dir: Mary Nighy. Starring: Anna Kendrick, Kaniehtiio Horn, Charlie Carrick, Wunmi Mosaku, Mark Winnick. 15, 89 minutes
‘Alice, Darling’ is in cinemas from 20 January