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28 September 2022

Don’t Worry Darling is a derivative let-down

Olivia Wilde’s film about an idyllic 1950s community reflects modern anxieties but has little new to say.

By Ryan Gilbey

Don’t Worry Darling is an ironic title for a film that arrives bearing nothing but woes. Did Florence Pugh really fall out with her director and co-star Olivia Wilde? Did the pop singer Harry Styles publicly spit at his fellow cast member Chris Pine? And what’s up with Styles’ American accent? Don’t worry, darling: such folderol need not detain us. There is a fair amount wrong with the movie but Wilde deserves better than to have it judged on tittle-tattle and allegations of expectorating.

If the rumour mill has been powered by misogyny – in particular the notion, last seen on this scale around the time of Elaine May’s Ishtar (1987), that entrusting a costly studio movie to a female director is like putting a chimpanzee at the wheel of a juggernaut – then so too is the world of Don’t Worry Darling, where women paint their faces and bite their tongues. Pugh plays Alice, and her wonderland is the Victory project – a utopian planned community lined with palm trees and surrounded by desert, where she lives blissfully with the dapper Jack (Styles). Except for the nightmares in which scabby-faced dancers march towards her in monochrome.

[See also: David Cronenberg, master of body horror, returns with Crimes of the Future]

It is the late 1950s; everywhere you look could be a Life magazine cover. Alice, Bunny (Wilde) and the other wives wave their husbands off each morning to jobs in the “progressive materials” business. Then it’s time to do the housework before relaxing with a cocktail. “Remember ladies, there is beauty in control,” says the local dance instructor. This is the theory peddled by Frank (Pine), the community’s charismatic guru. “Nasty word, chaos,” he shudders.

But discord is in the air. Alice’s neighbour Margaret (KiKi Layne) has been staring vacantly into space and voicing doubts about Victory, while Alice imagines herself trapped under glass or wrapped in cling film. Standing at the stove, she crushes eggs in her palm only to find nothing inside.

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Those empty shells risk becoming a symbol of sorts for a movie that feels simultaneously over-egged – Wilde hasn’t found a sinister sound effect or fussy camera angle that she didn’t like – and strangely vapid. The director and her screenwriter, Katie Silberman, spend an awfully long time reiterating that Victory is too good to be true, which leaves no room to explore the questions raised by a twist in the final half-hour, or to delve into unresolved tensions surrounding Margaret’s breakdown. It is not insignificant that she is one of the few people of colour in the Victory project, yet the film skims over the implications of that, and of her suffering becoming a catalyst for white enlightenment.

[See also: Moonage Daydream is a lavish and loving profile of David Bowie]

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Katie Byron’s production design, Matthew Libatique’s cinematography and Arianne Phillips’s costumes supply some of the pleasurable jolts lacking in the Stepford-by-numbers script. One effective touch is the platoon of red-suited handymen who materialise to quell dissent. Scrambling up a hill in pursuit of an errant citizen, they resemble livid pustules colonising a healthy body. There are witty character sketches, too, among the husbands. Douglas Smith excels as a gauche newcomer eager to keep up with the Joneses; Asif Ali is amusing as a wiseacre in thrall to Victory’s leader. Spotting Frank in an open shirt at a dinner party, he admonishes himself and hurriedly removes his own tie.

Any possible complaints about Styles’ performance are eventually rendered superfluous by the plot. There is a narrative reason, it transpires, for his ineffectual manner, just as there is for his uncertain accent. And though there is a sense that Pugh has been through this lark before (Midsommar also required her to sit at the head of the table, and to witness people falling to their deaths), she doesn’t use that as an excuse to coast. This is not an actor with an autopilot setting.

Wilde invested real personality in her debut film, the lively comedy Booksmart, so it’s disappointing that Don’t Worry Darling feels so anonymous. The most that can be said is that it reflects modern anxieties (over gender roles, technology vs humanity, reality vs fantasy, healing vs trauma) which have been more skilfully addressed on television in Black Mirror, WandaVision and Severance, as well as on stage in Blueberry Toast (written by Mary Laws, who was raised in a planned community) and Laura Wade’s Home, I’m Darling. It is just possible that there is a snappier, less derivative little thriller somewhere inside Wilde’s movie. Like the inhabitants of the Victory project, however, it is in dire need of liberation from its gilded, airless prison.

“Don’t Worry Darling” is in cinemas now

[See also: From Elizabeth Strout to Robert Harris: recent books reviewed in short]

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This article appears in the 28 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Truss Delusion