12 Oct 2022

At The Movies: Don't Worry Darling

From At The Movies, 7:30 pm on 12 October 2022

Pop star-turned-actor Harry Styles is by no means the biggest problem with this highly publicised film, says Simon Morris

Don't Worry Darling arrived in a hail of publicity, much of it unflattering. The original star was bumped in favour of the less experienced Harry Styles.

Styles is actually a singer rather than an actor, and he was up against some pretty daunting competition - Florence Pugh, Chris Pine, Gemma Chan, and Olivia Wilde, who also directed the film.

But Harry is not bad as the loving husband in a '50s-style fantasy world called the Victory Project.

Jack and his wife Alice - Florence Pugh - live the sort of life that probably only existed in old American sitcoms. Hubby goes to work in the morning, Wifey does the housework and cooks the roast. And at the end of the day "Hi honey I'm home", and cocktails all round.

The entire neighbourhood is full of couples like Alice and Jack - the set design is very Edward Scissorhands meets The Stepford Wives.

In fact, the whole film is a series of call-backs to other well-known movies, from the title - Don't Worry Darling sounds like an old Doris Day/Rock Hudson romcom - to the "what's really going on?" paranoia of The Matrix, The Truman Show and even The Handmaid's Tale.

The Victory Project is run by a charismatic doctor called Frank - Chris Pine - who regularly reminds everyone they're living their best lives in the best of all possible worlds.

But there's one proviso. Don't leave the district. And above all, stay away from the Victory Project's HQ out in the desert.

And sooner or later you know that a feisty wife like Alice - Florence Pugh is the real star of Don't Worry Darling - isn't going to be pushed around by anyone, no matter how well-meaning they say they are. She starts to push back and lives to regret it.

Right from the start, we're left in no doubt that something's dangerously "off" about the whole Victory Project. So many elements don't make sense - and I'm not just talking about Harry Styles' flat English accent in such a Californian setting.

It's the sort of brave new world summed up in the phrase "Make America Great Again". The smarmy Frank sounds suspiciously familiar at times, too.

This is one of those stories very popular in the '50s TV series The Twilight Zone - giving real life a "what if" twist.

Of course, it was easy for those shows - they could wrap them up in a mere 20 minutes or so. Don't Worry Darling has to sustain interest - and credibility - for over two hours, which proves beyond its reach.

As I say, this is no reflection on the actors. Florence Pugh once again reminds you how good she is, and makes you wish she had better luck with the scripts they hand her.

But a Twilight Zone film depends on its twist ending. And this is so obviously a Twilight Zone movie that when the twist ending belatedly turns up, it elicits a "Finally!" rather than the desired "OMG!".

And the problem with a two-hour Twilight Zone movie - certainly with this one - is one "Holy Mackerel!" twist isn't enough. There has to be another. And then another…. Remember all those Matrix sequels? Like that.

When Don't Worry Darling hit the circuit - first at the Venice Film Festival, and then on every talk show on television, the attention soon deteriorated from "director Olivia Wilde's long-awaited follow-up to Booksmart".

It became "Did Harry Styles really spit at Chris Pine?", "Why are Olivia Wilde and Florence Pugh not talking?" and "Who does Harry Styles think he is anyway - an actor?"

I'd like to think that if the film had been better none of this would have arisen. But I wonder.

Maybe it's a case of life copying art. After all, this is a story of the shallow dreams of people who consume conspiracy theories, popular culture and social media.

From "don't rock the boat" to "Spitgate going viral" may not be that big a jump.