.Go Ask Alice

Anna Kendrick is in distress, again, in ‘Alice, Darling’

Mary Nighy’s Alice, Darling begins innocently enough, with a dinner get-together of three women friends after work. Sophie (Wunmi Mosaku) has a warm, ebullient personality and leads most of the conversation. Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn) is a bit more withdrawn, as if vaguely dissatisfied with the lightweight chitchat, or maybe it’s something else. 

The central figure in director Nighy’s character-study-with-a-difference—scripted by Alanna Francis, with help from story editor Mark Van de Ven—is the title character Alice (Anna Kendrick), whose relationship with a man named Simon (Charlie Carrick) is the catalyst of the story, even though most of her interaction with him occurs in her mind, through flashbacks. All is not well between Alice and Simon. And so she’s the one to worry about. 

The three women organize a relaxing road trip to a cottage on a lake, but Alice seems a bit preoccupied. At one point, she vomits, and viewers notice she’s in the habit of nervously pulling her hair out. What, if anything, does that have to do with the fact that Alice lied to Simon about the trip?

As the vacation goes on, Alice is plainly stewing about her boyfriend, but viewers haven’t exactly observed him doing her any overt harm (again, glimpsed in flashback). Except for the sly putdowns he offers in place of typical lovers’ small talk. Hmm… Maybe Alice’s brittle, unhappy emotional state and her “disordered eating” habits are signs of abuse. As audiences witness Alice’s tense stay in the cottage, the question arises: Could someone possibly be gaming someone? Is Simon the bad guy, or is it Alice who’s losing her marbles? 

Alice, Darling sets itself up as a representative 21st-century urban “comedy of manners” (or should it be called ordeal by manipulation?). It’s a tale of perceived mischief in which viewers are asked to choose between a highly strung, vulnerable young woman and her lover, a glib, overbearing artist whose ostensibly playful bickering—plus some clearly abusive talk, seen in flashback—has reduced his “beloved” to such a precarious mental condition. The evidence is inconclusive, but both Simon and Alice appear to be damaged goods.

Compare and contrast Alice’s predicament with a situation from another time and place. For instance, there’s the uneasily “civilized” discomfort etched onto the features of actor Monica Vitti as she navigates the social isolation of modern Italy in director Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960). As it happens, in both Alice, Darling and L’Avventura, the characters are dealing with the emotional fallout of a search for a missing girl. 

Is director Nighy (in real life the daughter of actor Bill Nighy) channeling Antonioni’s painful modernism into the story of a woman who never feels safe under the cloud of her unfortunate love affair? And how does the audience reconcile Alice’s relatively restrained dilemma with the startling physical violence that takes place in the last act? 

Essentially, the filmmaker leaves viewers in Alice’s hands and it’s up to the individual to figure it out. Alice, Darling, hardly a vital, hot-button participant in the current culture wars, neatly sidesteps most of its own narrative pitfalls thanks to Kendrick’s portrayal of the walking wounded female lead. 

Distraught Alice mentally replays the lowlights of her relationship as she goes through the motions of a “restorative” holiday, and the audience is inclined to believe her plight at face value, primarily because they’ve come to trust the basic character Kendrick has portrayed since she was first noticed in 2009’s Up in the Air. Most often the character is a quietly attractive, almost mousy everywoman who could benefit from some form of protection.

That’s what viewers get in Nighy’s feature directorial debut. She’s a fragile damsel in distress with very few questions asked. It might be fun to see Kendrick tinker with her basic screen persona by playing someone irredeemably wicked. Maybe next time. Until then, Alice, Darling sticks to the middle of the road. Bring a hanky.

In theaters

East Bay Express E-edition East Bay Express E-edition