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Alice, Darling review – resolutely realistic but slightly underpowered domestic abuse drama

Anna Kendrick is excellent in a dependable but limited character study of a woman pushed to the edge by her cruel boyfriend

He never hurts me,” says Alice (Anna Kendrick), in a faltering defence of her abusive boyfriend Simon (Charlie Carrick) after her two best friends work out exactly why Alice has grown increasingly distant from them, controlled into an anxious loneliness by her narcissistic partner. In a very literal, physical sense, Alice is telling the truth, but that hardly makes Simon innocent. Mary Nighy’s understated drama Alice, Darling deals with the insidious mental anguish that a cruel partner can impose without ever raising a hand in violence. It’s a calm and collected look at the less obviously dramatic realities of domestic abuse, making for a sturdy and unshowy but just a little underpowered debut for its director.

We first meet Alice on her way to what should be a fun dinner with her two oldest friends, but there’s clearly something wrong, Alice twisting and tugging her hair out in her car. It’s not long before we realise the cause of her anxiety; all through the meal her phone is buzzing with demanding and needy messages, Simon refusing to grant her a minute of peace or privacy. When a small-scale girls’ trip to a rural cabin is pitched for the 30th birthday of Alice’s artist friend Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn), it seems like a welcome escape for Alice, though she, of course, has to pretend to Simon that it’s a work trip to get his permission to go.

It’s at this cabin, forcibly separated from Simon, where Alice finally has the breathing space to start figuring out just how bad a situation she’s in, which leads to panicked conflicts with Tess, who becomes annoyed by Alice’s withdrawn quietude. Mediating these confrontations is the more diplomatic Sophie (Wunmi Mosaku), and it’s in these part arguments, part therapy sessions that Alice finally reveals the full extent of Simon’s abuse, which we catch brief glimpses of in distressing flashbacks.

As may be clear from the above paragraphs, there’s a surprising amount of plot to power through in Alice, Darling, which comes at the cost of depth for the film’s supporting characters, all of whom are reduced to ciphers by Alanna Francis’s script – not a great sign for a film with such a small cast. Naturally, the whole thing is at its best when it focuses in most tightly on Alice and her degraded mental state, often unable to see past the prison that Simon has built around her mind, her outbursts and self-delusions both tragic and frustrating.

It’s a strong role for Kendrick, who makes for great casting – the bubbly persona she’s long built both on-screen and off makes her fearful jitteriness here all the more effective for just how unfamiliar it feels. She provides a strong centre to this resolutely realistic tale, one that teases a possible turn to something more genre-ish but ultimately finds its final showdown in a far more low-key context. Nighy (daughter of Bill) keeps this melodrama-free tone on an even keel throughout, but Alice, Darling really does feel like a First Film, rarely making any interesting formal choices outside of Kendrick’s forceful performance.

Hollywood studies of domestic abuse often aim for the most obviously shocking stuff, and Alice, Darling offers a much-needed counterpoint, a reminder of the agonising power of countless smaller incidents building up to leave a formerly vibrant woman at the mercy of a cruel and boring man. Though it does lack the real gutpunch scene you might expect from this sort of drama, this is still an important story, solidly told.

Alice, Darling is released in UK cinemas on 20 January.

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