February 7, 2023

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‘Alice, Darling’ review: When ‘Love’ is really about control

A few minutes into “Alice, Darling,” audiences may be reminded of how “The Invisible Man” opened 2020: Anna Kendrick She sneaks out of bed at dawn, agonizing not to wake the partner we briefly assume is about to flee. But while that vehicle of Elisabeth Moss was a monster movie, it gained weight with the backstory of her abusive boyfriend, the director Mary NighyThe feature film debut put a woman’s difficult exit from a dangerous relationship front and center. This is a quietly powerful drama about psychological manipulation and harm, earning a year-end qualifying run at AMC Sunset 5 in West Hollywood on December 30 before expanding to AMC theaters nationwide on January 20.

In an unnamed city, Alice (Kendrick) arrives late and leaves early from a night she missed with her best friends Sophia (Nami Musako) and Tess (Kanaitiyo Horn). Distracted, even frightened, we can tell she sneaks away to the bathroom to rip her hair out — a nervous tic that builds as the movie begins. When we first met her boyfriend, she hurried home, he seemed nice enough. But small “disjointed” notes and disturbing flashbacks soon reveal that successful artist Simon (Charlie Carrick) is a control freak who wrests his self-doubts and other neuroses onto Alice. He undermined her trust in every way, as he was demanding and belittling them at the same time, envious of the slightest bit of attention she gave to anyone but himself.

And so, when the three women organize a week-long vacation by the lake to celebrate Tess’ 30th birthday, Alice can only get away with it by lying, telling Simon that she is on a compulsory business trip. Although not physically abusive, he drove such a paranoid wedge between her and the rest of the world that she could hardly take part in this much-needed escape with trusted friends. Instead, she isolates herself, defensively dismisses their concerns, and points out the ways her thinking has been distorted (particularly regarding food and body image) — all the while dodging his constant, needy text messages.

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About halfway here, Alice feels an irrational outburst that reveals just how much she’s suppressed cumulative panic. Soon, she begins to trust the ugly reality of her home situation. But even having her phone taken away by well-meaning friends isn’t enough to keep Simon at bay.

Alanna Francis’ subtle screenplay threads into a subplot about a young woman who goes missing in this rural area, suggesting elements of the murder mystery we’d expect might lead to a more character-oriented territory. This actually proves a red herring. “Alice, Darling” may disappoint those who expect its conclusion to be reached by means more violent or melodramatic than the filmmakers concoct.

But the focus here isn’t so much on the subject of Alice’s horror as on the emotional basis of the friendships that Simon (naturally) does his best to keep from her, and which may prove redeeming. While the word “enter” is never uttered, that’s what this movie is about ipso facto The gist: How would people who really love you risk telling you who only pretends to be equally, about your obvious harm. Breaking a destructive dependence is very difficult, and sometimes others have to deal you the first knockout blow.

It’s a solid role for Kendrick, whose character may seem less than fully defined, but that’s part of the point – Alice’s boyfriend has insidiously removed any part of her personality that he doesn’t prioritize. Kanetio Horn and Wonmi Musako are both pretty good as such a rare thing on screen, BFF characters with clear inner lives of their own, rather than just being satellites to the hero. Carrick is careful not to make Simon a prominent monster. To the extent we see him, he’s charming and charismatic enough by the time we understand how Alice was drawn by degrees into a relationship that works like a slow-acting poison.

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If the movie could use a stronger sense of catharsis in the finale, it’s good that Nighy and Francis exercised such wise, upfront restraint. This keeps “Alice, Darling” from having any sense of invention, the muted anxiety in Kendrick’s every gesture maintaining just enough tension despite the lack of overt teasing devices. The particularly thoughtful compilation is complemented by original piano-based scores by Owen Pallett and handsome but unglamorous cinematography by Mike McLaughlin.