The Plot: Alice (Florence Pugh) and Jack (Harry Styles) are living their best lives in an enclosed 1950s community known as The Victory Project. An experiment in quality living in the desert combined with wholesome community values, there’s no room for outsiders or those who don’t conform to its ideals. Unity is the key here, espoused by community figurehead Frank (Chris Pine). His daily radio missives are essential listening for all concerned. The men go out to work each day at company headquarters, while the wives stay home and attend to domestic duties. Alice witnesses disturbing behaviour in a discontented neighbour, leading to cracks in the mirror appearing. All is not what it seems in this seemingly perfect world…
The Verdict: Well before the release of Don’t Worry Darling, there were plenty of rumours swirling about the offscreen drama involving the making of Olivia Wilde’s sophomore directorial effort. Recently, it ramped up to almost daily tidbits of juicy gossip involving Wilde and her cast. Tensions were all-too-obvious from the Venice Film Festival premiere, with Florence Pugh planning a quick getaway like her onscreen persona. It threatened to overshadow the release of the film itself – almost. As the old film industry saying goes though, there’s no such thing as bad press. If it gets audiences into the screen to see this ambitious drama with science fiction overtones, then so be it. For it is a film worth seeing – and talking about afterwards with your nearest and dearest. Don’t worry though. Just keep telling yourself it’s only a movie, only a movie, only a movie (to borrow a tagline from an infamous video nasty)…
At first glance, Wilde has picked a peach of a script by Katie Silberman, Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke to adapt into a couples melodrama. It posits itself as a spin on that 1950s American Dream world of picture-perfect domesticity. A happy community of loyal neighbours, white picket fences, cars that bring men to work each morning in synchronicity, women who attend to household chores without question and dinner parties where all follow the creed of cult-like leader Frank. Chaos has no place here and neither does anyone who questions just how this utopia got to be in the first place. What are the rumbling sounds each day? Why is nobody concerned about a light aircraft crash that Alice witnesses on the border of this enclosed, mostly-white privileged world? And just what is going on in Alice’s mind as she witnesses visions and incidents which others, including her husband, firmly refute?
It’s a heady enough mix of elements, heightened for a cinematic effect that keeps it narratively engaging – up to a certain point that is. The audience will know when it gets there, as Wilde pulls an M. Night Shyamalan and then sends the film spinning off course in several different directions. It’s a contender for the most jump-the-shark moment of the year, but Wilde just about manages to keep it under control to deliver a breathless climax. Control is important here, given that it’s an important theme in the film. The narrative up to ‘that point’ was a clever take on The Stepford Wives for the #MeToo generation. Wilde is making a point about male-female relationships through a period lens when gender roles were pre-defined. However, it’s something of a mad Frankenstein formula. There are familiar bits and pieces of several other films in here too, the mere mention of whom would lead to spoilers (it’s enough to say that one of them is a Shyamalan film). It’s not so original then and therefore derivative on reflection, once audiences have left the cinema and had time to absorb it.
That said though, Don’t Worry Darling has its moments and its cast work hard to sell this utopian world and its character motivations. Well, some of them anyway. Florence Pugh is ideal casting here, given that she’s previously played distressed but ultimately strong women on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Watch out Flo – you don’t want to get typecast in these roles. She’s terrific though and tears up the screen. Likewise with the suave Chris Pine, who says a lot more with his body language and carefully controlled facial expressions than his cloaked words. There’s an intriguing face-off between them in which Frank taunts Alice to question her wonderland (or wonder-land) and challenge him. However, Wilde frustratingly doesn’t develop this enough to wonder ‘what if’? The less said about Wilde’s current squeeze Harry Styles, the better. The singer still has some way to go as an actor (maybe his role in the upcoming My Policeman might change that, but the jury is out for now). Don’t Worry Darling has some worries allright, including some missed potential. Its firm feminist angle and strong visuals make it an interesting two hours nonetheless. Style over substance yes, but what style. Jump in and follow the rabbit hole…
Rating: 3 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
Don’t Worry Darling
Alice in wonder-land
Don't Worry Darling (USA / 16 / 122 mins)
In short: Alice in wonder-land
Directed by Olivia Wilde.
Starring Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Chris Pine, Olivia Wilde, Gemma Chan, Nick Kroll.