If not guided by an ominous score and a remarkable lead performance of brittle, jittery anxiety, it might take you a third of Alice, Darling, a new film starring Anna Kendrick as a woman in an emotionally abusive relationship, to realize something is wrong. Alice’s relationship with Simon (Charlie Carrick), a thirtysomething Toronto-based artist with a mild British accent, could seem innocuous on a clue-by-clue basis. In isolation, a “thinking of me?” text with a kissing face emoji, or the way he drapes his arm her over her like a cape, or his chiding her to raise her professional ambitions her, could seem like affection. The tell is in Alice’s frayed hair dela – barrel-curled into, as her friend Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn) puts it, an outdated Gossip Girl coif and, from the very first scene, nervously pulled into matted clumps.
Alice, Darling, directed by Mary Nighy from a script by Alanna Farris, is the rare film to depict the battering of the psyche, let alone one which deftly and accurately depicts the corrosive, insidious effect of coercive control absent the evidence of physical abuse. Simon never hits her, to the point which Alice uses to discount the seriousness of her situation to her two best friends. “But he doesn’t hurt me though,” she insists to Tess and Sophie (Wunmi Mosaku), who too slowly realize the extent to which Simon’s yawning insecurities and possessiveness have erased Alice’s sense of self and her autonomy. The film smartly prioritizes effect over cause, resisting the trap of litigating just how toxic Simon’s behavior was nor the escape hatch of “it wasn’t that bad.” We see snippets of his manipulations but mostly how it manifests in Alice: the way she obsessively buffs her body into near hairlessness, recites ominous facts about sugar, rehearses a lie about seeing her friends to escape his judgment, treats sex as responsibility rather than pleasure . The way she expunges a flirty waiter’s number from a napkin like she’s bleaching blood, lest Simon find it in the trash can.
Watching this accumulation of Alice’s distress reminded me, paradoxically, of the 2014 Rolling Stone article that hinged on the now retracted story of a brutal, bloody gang rape at the University of Virginia. In an attempt to draw attention to campus sexual assault, the journalist sought the most dramatic narrative possible and unwittingly ended up with a fake one, pulled almost line for line from a television episode. The great tragedy of that scandal was that the primacy afforded to that one discredited story – with blood and broken glass and bruises, a laundry list of visible manifestations of pain – overshadowed and ultimately undermined anything that fell short of its extremity. To be believed and to be taken seriously, the logic goes, it has to be so bad as to be indisputable. There’s a cultural desire, bolstered by countless film and television narratives about the worst things that can happen to women, to have trauma validated through physical evidence, violent action or intense drama.
The Rolling Stone saga is an egregious example of the impulse for evidence through extremity (perhaps, subconsciously, why I’m drawn to it); 2014 was a thousand years ago in internet culture time, but most narratives of abuse or violation on-screen are still clearly rendered on the body. (See, again, the many, many shows about murdered women, or the prevalence of the trauma plot.) Shows and films which have grappled with psychological fallout and self-doubt, such as Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You and HBO’s The Tale, have been rooted in clear-cut (and reality-based) examples of sexual assault or abuse. Very few stories take on the mangled knot of emotional abuse without grounding it in something physically violent, and thus more sinister.
This makes the restraint of Alice, Darling all the more remarkable and revelatory – a case for the seriousness of coercive control, in and of itself. To be sure, Kendrick’s Alice suffers visible symptoms from the gnawing stress of her relationship with Simon. The stress of lying to him about seeing her her friends, of whom he disapproves, causes her to vomit; the loss of an earring, further evidence of her her “badness”, precipitates a viscerally performed, devastating panic attack.
But the film’s achievement, like the 2019 British TV movie I Am Nicola, is in its meticulous, unvarnished depiction of a self in invisible constraints. Nighy evocatively splices Alice’s girls trip with her friends her with the fixating loop of thoughts in her head – a brief glimpse of Simon, a problem to fix, the crisis-to-crisis thought pattern of sustained anxiety. Like I Hate Suzie Too, the British show whose second season dropped in December, Alice, Darling televisually captures the suffocating experience of sustained panic. But the film distinguishes itself in pinning that distress, and the toll of it, on a single person, one who never demonstrates the capacity for physical violence.
“In society, physical abuse is very clearly defined as an evil, and I think psychological and emotional abuse, even for those who have suffered it, can sometimes question whether it’s a real thing,” Nighy told the Los Angeles Times, explaining why she had a scene in which Alice revealed bruises removed from the script. It was a move supported by Kendrick, who has spoken quite gruelingly on her personal experience of her in an emotionally abusive relationship. “I was begging Mary, ‘Can Alice be the evidence?’” she told the LA Times. “Because not only do I want us to not make a movie that’s already been made, but personally, I need to trust that I’m the evidence. Part of it was like, if you can’t trust Alice, then I can’t trust myself.”
The fact that Alice is drawn to the story of a missing girl at the lake (a subplot that’s admittedly drawn out for too long) demonstrates that, on some level, Alice longs for more evidence, too. But for the most part, the film upholds that trust and resists the pull for deadly stakes. Other than a moment of overkill in an inevitable late-stage confrontation, Alice, Darling stays grounded in the strictly civil and chilling. It should be enough to leave if he checks her email without consent, if he tracks her, if he keeps her from her friends, if he shreds her confidence. Few films have understood that you don’t need a bruise or physical fight to believe that.