Darlings Review (SPOILERS): Too Much Dark. Not Enough Light, Makes Everything Muddy

Okay, Spoiler time!!! I already put up the No Spoilers review if you just want a quick idea of what the film is like to decide if it is for you. Now, SPOILERS!

Whole Plot in One Paragraph:

Alia is married to Vijay Verma and lives in the square where she grew up, across from her mother Shefali Sharma. Vijay Verma is abusive, and Shefali keeps telling Alia to leave him, but Alia is torn. It was a love marriage and she has hope Vijay can change. Lovely Roshan Matthews, aspiring writer and friend of Shefali, files a police report on Vijay’s abuse. He is arrested by reluctant police, but then talks Alia into dropping charges by promising he will stop drinking and they can have a baby. For a while, things are good (Alia doesn’t know Vijay had to stop drinking anyway for his own health), Alia is pregnant. And then Vijay gets mad one night and throws her down the stairs and she miscarries. Alia comes home from the hospital and drugs him with sleeping pills and ties him up then calls her mother. Shefali is all for just killing him and getting rid of him, but Alia isn’t sure, she thinks maybe he can be reformed. The police start investigating but the women are able to talk themselves out of everything, but they can’t figure out what to do with Vijay. Vijay offers to just leave and go back to his village and never tell anyone, but returns angry. Shefali and Roshan Matthews (who has confessed his love for Shefali) and Alia almost kill him, until Alia seemingly changes her mind and has him record a video instead taking responsibility for his actions. And then we learn it was all a scheme to help them, Shefali hits Vijay on the head and they take him and tie him to railway tracks to fake a suicide. At the last minute, Alia changes her mind for real, decides she doesn’t want to answer violence with violence, she wants to free him and divorce him. And then Vijay is hit by a train while yelling at her anyway! As they go home, Shefali reveals that she did the same thing when Alia was a child, killed her abusive husband to save herself and then hid the body. Happy ending,

The idea that I think really really works is Alia’s inner conflict on finally giving up on this marriage. We get flashes of her fantasies, escaping to a clean perfect inner world when things get too dark. And we get the struggle of her telling her mother “I know I need to leave him, I know it is bad” and then being with him and getting sucked back. The arch for her is being passive and trying to fix things (have a baby, get him to stop drinking, etc. etc.), to reaching her breaking point and becoming the abuser herself, to finally realizing that she doesn’t win by doing the same thing to him that he did to her, she wins by walking away and remaining herself.

But that clean throughline gets muddled with all the other stuff going on. The cops are suspicious, Roshan Matthews is in love with Shefali, Vijay keeps escaping and getting recaptured, it’s just a lot of ideas for little things that make it harder to see the Big Things. It’s not Masala, where you have the random unconnected moments, it’s messy because the random stuff is connected to the big stuff and it all gets blurry.

I don’t want to take away from what this film does well. I can even sympathize with why it is so messy, because there were so many good ideas they couldn’t bring themselves to cut any of them. For instance, with Shefali, we are told again and again that everyone believes she is having an affair with the local butcher. And then Roshan Matthews reveals he is in love with her and she kisses him as a distraction. What’s with that? She mentioned her horrible husband who left her, is she with the butcher and Roshan now that she is single? And then at the very end we get the reveal that Shefali killed her husband while Alia was a baby and the Butcher helped her afterwards, forming a bond that has left him protective of her since then in a non-romantic way. That whole thing is FASCINATING. The idea of this neighbor who knows and helps and keeps the secret for decades, and the reveal that Shefali has shut herself off from love until just now when she opens up to Roshan Matthews, because that kind of experience doesn’t just go away. Of course you don’t want to cut any of that from the film! And you want to keep the whole “she killed her husband and the butcher helped her” reveal is a big thing at the end. But then if you do that, it means Alia’s whole journey of mentally freeing herself gets confused with Shefali’s story and it’s too much to follow!

And Roshan Matthews! The idea of a decent man who not only files a police report as a witness of abuse, but pays off the cop to take the report because he cares that much is excellent and important. But then it becomes this whole plot point of Vijay trying to find out who filed the report and threatening Roshan and then the police suspect Roshan when Vijay disappears and on and on. Surely there was a way to keep the general ideas without spending so long on Roshan’s plot alone?

Setting aside the details of Roshan-Butcher-Shefali, I loved the idea of the general community knowing about abuse, knowing that they couldn’t really do anything to stop it (that is, Alia had to decide for herself), but quietly being there ready to help when it was time. There’s a small thing, the local beautician is downstairs listening to the upstairs fighting, we see her aware of it every time without doing anything. And then she witnesses them carrying Vijay down the stairs the night he is found dead. And says nothing. Just like the butcher helped Shefali when she killed her husband and afterwards, and Roshan encourages Alia to leave her husband. “Society” may say a woman should stay with her husband, but your neighbors and witnesses around you are natural human people who are just waiting for you to leave him.

It ties into the larger message as well. The police come in all heavyhanded and black and white, pushing Alia to either put her husband in jail for 3 years or drop the charges. That doesn’t work! An abuse victim is not going to respond to that sort of ultimatum. She needs to find her own way and her own time. So it’s frustrating watching everyone know and do nothing, but that’s ultimately all they can do. It’s Alia herself who has to decide what she is ready to do and when she is ready to do it.

The full situation that has trapped Alia within her own mind is handled sooooooooo perfectly. The film opens showing the moment Alia and Vijay meet at the movies and he says he got a job and they can get married, and that’s important. He is sweet and charming and she is quick to forgive, and the whole thing feels like a movie. So yes, it was a love match, she chose this, she went into it with dreams in her head and faith that it would be perfect. And that makes it a different experience to leave than it was with her mother who went into a marriage without any particular vision or dream. And she is trapped in a different way because she does love her husband and he loves her, and also abuses her.

She says to Shefali a few times “I’m not like you”, which is another clue to her mind. Shefali worked multiple jobs to raise Alia as a single mother. Alia knew her father was abusive and left them. So Alia has in her head that she doesn’t want to work and be a single Mom like her mother, and she doesn’t want an abusive husband, so she will fall in love and marry the first nice boy who asks her and then have a baby and recreate her childhood, but perfect. The script never says that outright, but it’s there, we can see it. And her ending is to give up on that dream and discover a different way to avoid her mother’s life. She will work with her mother in their catering business, she will be single, she will be herself.

Shefali too, the backstory we learn explains things about her character without needing any clarification. She is just slightly off, similar to Alia, a little impulsive and quick to lie and live in a fantasy and do whatever is needed to get by. Going through such extreme trauma as a young woman, and then having to survive it in order keep her daughter alive, of course she would be a bit trapped in a fantasy world as well.

There’s just so much good here! I wish it could shine out. The biggest problem is there is just too many scenes of abuse. I ended up having to look away for multiple scenes. Vijay Verma is VERY good at playing the abusive husband. Do we really need multiple scenes of him doing that? Can’t we just have one scene to establish how awful he is and then never see it again? Did they not have faith in the audience, did they think we would need to see it again and again to understand? Because I really don’t need to see it again and again!

6 thoughts on “Darlings Review (SPOILERS): Too Much Dark. Not Enough Light, Makes Everything Muddy

  1. Yes, I think it is needed as one experiences the escalation of violence that shows how evil the husband is and how toxic the relationship. All his frustration about a bad and powerless job (he pretends it being a good one), the alcoholism (which gives him liver cirrhosis) and the jealousy because of Roshan helping Alia (and the mother) make clear that he needs Alia to vent his anger. When he notices that she may be ready to leave him in jail, he ties her to him through giving her what she wants the most – a child. Alia even cuts ties with her mother who has warned her to not taking him back.
    Alia only really fights back (supported by Roshan and the butcher) when her husband almost kills her but at least provokes a miscarriage.
    What I liked the most about the second part of the movie are the twists…and honestly, it wasn’t too much for me – neither plotwise nor emotionally (I thought of Quentin Tarantino at a certain point).
    Darlings has a wonderful ensemble play…one could easily imagine the movie also as a theatre play…I also liked that the police-chief was shown wanting to support the wife.
    It was also important to see how much a support system helps to fight back (the mother, Roshan – who repaired almost everything, the neighbours).

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    • Oooo, Quentin Tarantino is an interesting comparison! I was thinking about making it more streamlined and clear, but maybe leaning into the surrealism and shaggy dog story vibe like Tarantino would have been better. More time shifting and non-linear storytelling would be interesting too.

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  2. Hey! so i just found out about your blog through the deol 101 you made about Dharmendra. Color me pleasantly surprised. The amount of knowledge you have and how passionate you are i was thinking you were a fellow Indian until I read your post about White privilege and the feeble no. which i must say was wonderfully well written. cheers from a new follower!

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  3. So I haven’t seen the whole film, I couldn’t take the violence, but what struck me is how Alia is the victim, but doesn’t play a victim. Her portrayal of a sassy strong woman being abused is one I haven’t seen before, and I loved the writting and acting for killing off the total victim narrative.

    Liked by 2 people

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