With a title like Don’t Worry Darling the reviews really write themselves. “Worry, Darling” will no doubt be used in at least half of them. Booksmart director Olivia Wilde’s sophomore feature arrives in cinemas amidst a flurry of negative press and PR missteps which have little to do with the film, much to do with its A-list cast, and just a soupçon of sexism. So what of the film itself?
Florence Pugh plays Alice (a fitting name for any rabbit hole-descending protagonist) who lives in the apparent wonderland of Victory, California. Victory is a 1950s American utopia, a suburb of The Jetsons-inspired houses set in cul-de-sacs out of which perfectly-suited husbands emerge to drive shiny, pastel-coloured muscle cars to work every morning, waved off by their dutiful, perfectly-coiffed wives. It’s like a desert-bound Mad Men.
Alice is married to rising young technical engineer Jack (Harry Styles). The Chambers have an idyllic life of home-cooked meals and cunnilingus. Jack works for the “Victory Project”, a mysterious organisation founded by Frank (Chris Pine), who the wives only get to see at social gatherings that he presides over like a benevolent, super-sexy uncle. Otherwise, the wives spend their time shopping, at the pool, or gardening. Or, as Alice’s best friend Bunny (Wilde) describes it: “We drink while looking at plants.” There’s a lot of drinking to be had and yet – here’s another mystery – no hangovers.
Anyone who has seen The Truman Show will know that life this perfect and 50s-fied can’t be genuine. (Sidebar: what is it about the 1950s which makes for such a fantasy destination? Is it the fashion? A sense of conformity? The Eisenhower years produced William S. Burroughs for crying out loud. They weren’t that conformist.) This is a 1950s without a Korean War or racist segregation. But, sure enough, there is trouble in this wonderland. One of the wives, Margaret (KiKi Layne), is having what appears to be a nervous breakdown, asking existential questions and some practical ones as well: What are we doing here? What do our husbands do at work? Sometimes the whole place shakes with unexplained earthquakes and there is a forbidden zone that non-employees – i.e. wives – must not travel to.
Sure enough, the forbidden zone gets well and truly travelled-to. Alice finds herself exploring the same questions Margaret did, as well as receiving the same suspicion and hostility from all sides. She is plagued by nightmare flashes of a Busby Berkley musical and a score that nods so enthusiastically to Mica Levi and Under the Skin that John Powell’s neck must hurt. There is a mystery and it will be revealed, but given the Glazer predecessor already cited – not to mention any number of Twilight Zone episodes – the reveal is not as shocking as the lead-up hopes it will be.
Don’t Worry Darling is admittedly gorgeous. Matthew Libatique’s cinematography captures the bright sunlight and the primary colours of the cocktail cherries, as well as the whisky-infused interiors. Wilde has already proven herself as a director with her brilliant debut. Even the hackneyed sci-fi concept behind Katie Silberman’s screenplay wouldn’t have been too much of a problem if it wasn’t for the performances. As a couple, Pugh and Styles have zero chemistry: zip. In many scenes it feels like Pugh is holding Styles up, trying to shepherd him towards something credible while his English accent travels up and down the country. He finds it difficult to look the camera in the eyes and some of the cuts appear to be motivated solely by saving his stunted performance.
And yet Styles is hardly the only one at fault. Pugh never truly gets hold of Alice as a character. Unsure of how to go forward, she decides to ‘Winslet’ it, mistaking a lot of acting for good acting. The histrionics swiftly become wearisome and also fit uncomfortably with Don’t Worry Darling’s main feminist thrust. Wilde’s second bite of the cherry is not the train-wreck that a section of the internet seem to desire, but is instead just a moderately good film whose talent appear to have cancelled themselves out.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty