Florence Pugh can't save this underwhelming retro sci-fi from its overreliance on genre cliches.
Florence Pugh is one of our most promising young actresses who has built up an impressive career since her breakout role in Lady Macbeth – she has shown a commitment to working with interesting directors and taking on roles which challenge her as an artist. It’s difficult to see, then, what exactly it was about Don’t Worry Darling that interested her – the role of Alice, a young woman living in a hyperstylised, apparently utopian community named Victory, has very little dimension, despite Pugh’s valiant efforts to provide personality to a thinly-sketched sci-fi heroine we’ve seen a hundred times before.
The community of Victory, with its kitschy colours and mid century modern aesthetics, is populted by young couples and their families who adhere to a strict routine. The men go to work every morning while the women tend to their homes and children, and then the men return home, expecting dinner on the table and a drink immediately placed in their hand. Sometimes there are glamorous soirees, where they listen to jazz and dance with reckless abandon. Alice (Pugh) and Jack (Harry Styles) are happy here, along with their couple friends Bunny (Olivia Wilde), Fred (Nick Kroll), Peg (Kate Berlant) and Peter (Asif Ali), all under the watchful eye of Victory’s leader Frank (Chris Pine) and his glamorous wife Shelley (Gemma Chan).
But there’s a glitch in the system – another housewife, Margaret (KiKi Layne) has become unstable after the disappearance of her son. She maintains that something is being hidden from them, despite the assurances from Jack and the other husbands that everything is tickety-boo. After Alice witnesses a strange series of events, she too grows suspicious of Victory and Frank’s intentions, and sets out to find the truth. The film takes heavy inspiration from Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, as well as The Matrix and The Truman Show, which inhibits its ability to innovate somewhat – there’s a sense throughout the film that we’ve seen it all before.
Pugh has precious little to do as Alice, who is less a character and more a series of strung-together cliches, but her hardest challenge is performing opposite the vacant Harry Styles, whose acting is so stiff and self-conscious it’s impossible to take him seriously, much less believe this is a character capable of the things eventually revealed in the film’s comically predictable twist. The supporting cast are similarly underserved by the script, and it’s odd to think that Katie Silberman – who wrote such vivid characters in Set It Up and Booksmart – misses the mark so badly this time around.
Infinitely better than the script and majority of performances are Don’t Worry Darling’s craft elements – particularly John Powell’s score and Arianne Phillips’ costume design – but these aren’t enough to prevent Wilde’s sophomore feature from feeling riddled with sci-fi cliches, and undercooked in conception. The world of Victory (and the world beyond it) don’t feel lived-in, instead painted with the very broadest of strokes, and when you stop to consider some of the elements for more than a second, it’s obvious this isn’t a world that has much thought behind it.
There’s no sense of why we should care about Alice’s journey because we never really know who Alice is, or what’s at stake. It’s not quite unwatchable, but for all the claims Olivia Wilde has made since the film’s announcement about its feminist elements, it’s a fairly rote and unimaginative story of escaping from the patriarchy – one that’s been told before and told better.
Published 5 Sep 2022