Directed by Mary Nighy | Written by Alanna Francis | 90 min | ▲▲▲△△ | Digital/VOD
After a career with her charm light turned up high, it’s great seeing the way Anna Kendrick douses that star power for something more nuanced and internal. This modest Canadian/American indie allows her to stretch in a way the industry previously hadn’t, and full marks to her for going there. It’s the wells of anxiety she shares in her performance that keeps us rooted in this movie, even over the occasional bump in the script and the first-timer vibes in the direction.
The trailer for this picture puts it in a pocket we’ve seen before: The thriller where our central lady is terrorized by a man — who’s implicitly or explicitly capable of violence — before she eventually turns the tables and gets her revenge. Halle Berry was in one called The Rich Man’s Wife, Julia Roberts in Sleeping With The Enemy, or Jennifer Lopez in Enough. But it’s to the filmmakers’ credit Alice, Darling is a whole lot more nuanced than the marketing would suggest.
Kendrick is Alice, living in a very-recognizable though unnamed Toronto with her boyfriend, Simon (Charlie Carrick). Right away it’s easy to see how strung Alice is, pulling out her hair and rehearsing a lie to Simon so she can spend a week away with longtime friends, Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn) and Sophie (Wunmi Mosaku), celebrating Tess’ birthday.
It all goes without a hitch, and the ladies head out to a lovely cottage (somewhere on Lake Simcoe, I’m guessing), but Alice’s anxiety continues to mount. A subplot about a missing woman in the area adds an undercurrent of dread.
The film does a terrific job accenting Kendrick’s white knuckles with montages and the sound design, flashing back to previous conversations with Simon, cluing us in on both his toxicity and her codependence. Every odd noise could be a car door closing, could be Simon having tracked Alice down, riding on his rage for having been lied to.
Naturally, Alice’s inner conflict stirs up problems with her friends. While Horn and Mosaku both give warm, lived-in performances, there were times when I struggled to believe these women have known each other for years. Some of the dialogue between them is just a little awkward and clunky, but it gets better as we go along.
First time director Nighy (daughter of Bill, incidentally) has solid storytelling instincts, though also a tendency to serve the actors more than her movie’s suspense. When Simon eventually, inevitably appears, it feels almost anticlimactic rather than terrifying, which it could be.
Fortunately, the emotional payoff in the film’s final moments is huge. It gives Horn and Mosaku a scene to match Kendrick’s intensity, which they absolutely do, and drives home the message that a true friend has your back even in those times when you don’t have theirs.