Mary Nighy‘s feature film debut “Alice, Darling” is a straightforward drama about being caught up in a bad romance. The telltale signs seem obvious to outsiders like her friends and viewers, but to Alice she still performs the mental gymnastics of justifying his controlling demands on her body, attention, and time, interpreting them as love and affection. She’s dug into a defensive position, unable to see the damage Simon’s behavior has caused her, how she fears asking for time to herself, how suffocatingly he clings to her skin.
Nighy balances these perspectives as generously as she can. Almost every exchange or nervous glance from friend to friend or lover to lover feels like a hostage negotiation. What should be tender moments between the young couple are often cruel bouts of verbal and emotional abuse. The tension of the situation is baked into every confrontational staging between the pair or how detached Alice looks and feels from her friends. Even when Simon is not physically there in the scene, the fallout of his presence is visually evident. It has isolated Alice from those who truly care for her.
The murky nature of Alice’s relationship is transferred to the aesthetics of the film thanks to the cinema Mike McLaughlin. Alice’s world looks a little less bright than the one her friends live in, as if she only ventures out on cloudy days. There is a warm tone to the boyfriend’s cabin trip to the woods, but something still seems like the peace and quiet of the location is somehow missing. In a move that overcomplicates the already tense drama, Alanna Francis‘ script adds an element of danger to their trip through a subplot about a missing young woman. Alice becomes fixated on her, perhaps fatalistically, and the mystery becomes an excuse for Simon to escalate his control over her. Maybe it’s to be a cautionary tale for Alice or something to entice her to escape, but none of this is as effective as her narrative journey with her friends.