The uptight boyfriend, the quirky lead actress, the semi-rebellious college radio DJ who harnesses the melodic potential of red solo cups: these are the roles Anna Kendrick has been relegated to for most of her career, an eclectic mix of largely comedic vehicles. Even after the actress received an Oscar nomination for her supporting role in In the airshe seemed, still, to portray a Beca rather than a Natalie.
But in Mary Nighy’s emotionally disturbing debut Alice dear, says Kendrick, affirming that she has always had depth and scope. The actress plays Alice, a woman who is vulnerable and emotionally battered by an insidious abusive relationship. Kendrick begins by channeling a vulnerability, as if Alice were made of porcelain, and sudden movements from her friend Simon (Charlie Carrick) or friends Sophie (Wunmi Mosaku) and Tess (Kanihtiio Horn) can shatter her. Then her performance shifts, under Nighy’s assured leadership. It grows, retracts, and swells again, reflecting the emotional rock of abuse.
It comes down to
Sensitive and catchy.
It is through Alice’s compulsions—pulling locks of hair, wrapping them tightly around her index finger, obsessively counting calories—that we see the ferocity of her relationship. Nighy prefers suggestion over explanation. Through brief flashbacks, skilfully interspersed by editor Gareth C. Scales, we understand that Simon, a mercurial painter, has settled into Alice’s psyche. He haunts her – so much so that when Sophie and Tess invite Alice to spend a weekend at Sophie’s cottage, Alice tells Simon she is going on a business trip. She practices the lie while he gets coffee and pastries from a cafe, and her recitation conveys another level of fear and despair.
On the drive to the house by the lake, Alice is constantly thinking about Simon. The lie gnaws at her every time her phone rings with a text message from him. His seemingly uncomplicated wish for a safe flight becomes fodder for her. Another text asking her if she’s thinking about him feels not only suspicious, but also ominous. Simon’s frenzied communication style – characterized by the frequency, timing and tone of his messages – is calculated and compelling; it even keeps him in Alice’s mind, and especially, when she tries to free herself.
the most of Alice dear is located in the quiet rural town surrounding the cottage. When the trio arrive, they make a brief stop at a grocery store, where Alice spots a flyer for a missing girl. The local case consumes our protagonist, who even joins the teen’s quest to find the teen. This is the most curious part of Alanna Francis’ otherwise fully realized and restrained screenplay: it’s hard to discern what the case is trying to tell us without distracting our attention from Alice’s already gripping story. As Alice becomes more interested in the case, its purpose becomes increasingly unclear.
What is clear is that physical distance and time away from Simon help Alice better understand their relationship. But it is not an easy process. A few days into the journey, Tess and Alice get into a devastating fight that leaves them both unsure of their friendship. Dutiful and motherly, Sophie forces a confrontation by hiding Alice’s phone and leaving the women alone to chat. One of the most absorbent parts of Alice dear watches Alice, Sophie and Tess interact all weekend – to witness the frustrating moments of misunderstanding and the triumphant moments of clarity. Kendrick, Mosaku and Horn have a natural rapport, which makes investing in their friendship easy. We silently implore Sophie and Tess to look beyond the surface of Alice’s angry outbursts and propensity for isolation. We want Alice to feel safe enough to confide in her companions.
Their tense conversations and tender moments are guided by Owen Pallett’s menacing score. The tense, undulating music comes closest to Alice’s constant sense of impending doom. Mike McLaughlin’s unsentimental cinematography helps maintain the plaintive mood.
Without her phone, Alice loosens up and talks more about her relationship with Simon. Hearing the anecdotes of the insults, complaints and accusations he throws at her strengthens Tess, Sophie and, by extension, the viewer’s thoughts about the depth of abuse. Alice dear is a portrait of contrasts. Steadily building a sense of how abuse affects Alice’s behavior in the first half, Nighy adds an urgent layer to the character changes in the second half. Alice indulges in sugary food, takes photos at Tess’s birthday party, and turns down her friends’ offer to return her cell phone.
The third act of Alice dear is particularly captivating in how it uses the tension built up previously. Simon has not heard from Alice yet and uses more extreme tactics to see her and restore the toxic dynamic. But Sophie and Tess have helped Alice reconnect with herself, provide her with love and strengthen their bond. This turns out to be Alice’s saving grace, giving her the permission and power to imagine life without Simon.