Olivia Wilde's Don't Worry Darling 'neither daring nor darling'

Florence Pugh as Alice and Harry Styles as Jack
Damon Smith

DON'T WORRY DARLING (15, 123 mins) Thriller/Horror/Romance. Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Chris Pine, Olivia Wilde, Gemma Chan, Kate Berlant, Sydney Chandler, Timothy Simons. Director: Olivia Wilde.

Released: September 23

IN 2018, Theatr Clwyd premiered Laura Wade's scalpel-sharp comedy Home, I'm Darling.

The delectable commentary on traditional gender roles starred Katherine Parkinson as an impeccably coiffed 1950s domestic goddess, who sends her husband off to work with a cheerful wave and packed lunch, dutifully cleans their home in his absence, and has dinner ready for his return.

The play's lip-smacking twist, validation that appearances are deceptive, was delivered with a flourish in act one.

Penned by Katie Silberman, Don't Worry Darling dissects the same themes, also in a 1950s setting, with a similar rug-pulling twist embedded in the second hour, although here that flourish is warped to the point of outlandishness to fit the mould of a disorienting psychological horror.

Director Olivia Wilde's eagerly awaited follow-up to the raucous rites-of-passage romp Booksmart skitters into familiar, dark territory, borrowing imagery and shocks from A Clockwork Orange, Get Out, The Matrix, The Stepford Wives and Black Swan.

The latter film's Oscar-nominated cinematographer Matthew Libatique and Natalie Portman's husband, choreographer Benjamin Millepied, lend their respective expertise to Wilde's derivative sophomore effort.

Florence Pugh's mesmerising lead performance as a housewife with deep-rooted suspicions about her reality would be truly glorious had she not performed the same terror-soaked miracles in the 2019 horror Midsommar.

Co-star Harry Styles possesses natural charisma to smoothly transition from recording studio to sound stage but Silberman's script only gifts him a couple of juicy interludes. Breathless sex scenes feel like overkill to titillate Styles' ardent fanbase while the plot remains politely at first base.

Jack Chambers (Styles) is a technical engineer for the Victory Project, which conducts top-secret work in a desert under the guise of "the development of progressive materials".

Employees (all men) live in the picture-perfect, insular community of Victory, built by the company's CEO Frank (Chris Pine), with their girlfriends and wives, including Jack's adoring spouse Alice (Pugh).

While Jack and co are at work, Alice and neighbours Bunny (Wilde), Peg (Kate Berlant) and Violet (Sydney Chandler) clean, polish and cook, and take ballet classes led by Frank's emotionless wife Shelley (Gemma Chan).

Frequent earth tremors suggest Victory might be involved in drilling.

Frank and his acolytes remain tight-lipped until a shocking act at a company soiree opens Alice's eyes to grave imperfections in her "sun-baked paradise".

Don't Worry Darling constructs a puzzle box of paranoia and hallucinations before screenwriter Silberman takes a sledgehammer to characters' perceptions.

Wilde heeds the advice of Victory's chief physician, Dr Collins (Timothy Simons), and keeps calm and carries on as casualties mount in her battle of the sexes, and Pugh's inquisitive homemaker embraces the enemy of progress: chaos.

Wilde's picture is stylish and sporadically sensual but neither daring nor darling.