Promising Young Woman is a right-on-time school of shocks

Emerald Fennell’s BAFTA-winning debut feature packs in style, wit and sharp social commentary, with a propulsive performance from Carey Mulligan at its centre.

Promising Young Woman (2020)

▶︎ Promising Young Woman is available on Sky Cinema.

Right at the start of this blackly comic revenge thriller, lascivious MTV-style close-ups of men’s chino-clad crotches, paunches and butts gyrating on a dance floor are the first sly signal that writer-director Emerald Fennell is literally out to change our POV. Her provocative, polemical drama wraps its sharp points in a comic, candy-coloured shell.

Carey Mulligan’s sweet-faced Cassie is a medical school drop out, still living with her parents at 30. But she’s got a vigilante vocation, faking staggering-drunk blackouts in bars to smoke out the men who’ll try and take advantage of her. Taut but teasing, the film keeps us guessing initially as to whether she’s a femme fatale or female-rights enforcer; is that blood or hot-dog ketchup staining her blouse on the walk home?

Carey Mulligan as Cassie in Promising Young Woman (2020)

Rather than the evil perverts of Ms .45 (1981) or the paedophile of Hard Candy (2005), this #MeToo update of the rape-revenge genre starts by skewering those bro-rapists who see a drunk girl as a free pass – chancers who ply the prone and confused Cassie with alcohol and drugs while whispering “It’s OK, you’re safe.” Telling details – their increasingly invasive caresses of her floppy, unenthusiastic body – make these scenes disturbing as well as mordantly funny. The men’s terror and denial as she snaps sober to shame them (“What’s my name, Neil?”) forces a bark of uncomfortable laughter from the audience. After decades of drunk-girl-fair-game tropes in films like Animal House (1978) or Sixteen Candles (1984) – even 2007’s Superbad toys with the idea – Fennell’s what-the fuck frankness about rape culture is bracing.

Her film’s home truths come prettily swathed in night-time neon or the cupcake pastels of Cassie’s dinky coffeeshop day job. A lightly stylised look, rather than a directorial design imprint, it leavens the story’s heavy subject matter, along with Cassie’s good-girl braid and cutesy rainbow manicure. These suggest that girlish daytime Cassie is as much a clever construct as her night-time party-girl, who artfully smears the ‘blow-job lips’ copied from YouTube beauty tutorials, to signal she’s a hot mess. Her beguiling dialogue shifts in synch with her masquerades, veering from adolescent sarcasm with her parents to wary pertness with a prospective suitor and deadpan cool with her targets. Fennell often poses Cassie in the centre of the frame, in lingering shots that emphasise her isolation. Drunkenly draped crucifix-style on a banquette, or given a saintly halo by a wall clock, we’re reminded that she’s on a crusade.

Less nimbly managed are the script’s crunchy shifts in tone, as Cassie’s witty bar-bro shaming switches into an elaborate vendetta to avenge the college-party assault of her long-dead best friend Nina. Tackling another overdue target, she wreaks revenge on the attacker’s enablers, who refused to recognise Nina’s ordeal. Dishing out chillingly ingenious payback to Nina’s disloyal female friend Madison, and the disbelieving Dean of Students (the film cunningly deploys the well-beloved Connie Britton here, to up the discomfort), generates some of the film’s best, most squirm-inducing encounters. Mulligan’s fierce focus lets Cassie cut through their trite justifications like a scalpel. Under the crisp dialogue the scenes thrum with the injustice of an unacknowledged crime, and the complicity that loads guilt back on to female victims.

Carey Mulligan as Cassie and Bo Burnham as Ryan in Promising Young Woman (2020)

Ranged around these encounters, the story veers between tones and genres, cramming in a halting indie romance between Cassie and her med-school friend Ryan (an amiably awkward Bo Burnham) and slices of moody character study. It’s Fennell’s first feature, laudably full of daring and darkness, but its ambition makes for an occasionally bumpy ride. Punchy but on-the-nose music choices accentuate this – a car-battering headily jacked up with Wagner’s Liebestod, and Anthony Willis’s score emitting ominous uh-oh thuds at tense moments. Cassie and Ryan’s romance is cemented by their giggly warbling of Paris Hilton’s tinny Stars Are Blind on a date.

This happy coupled-up montage usefully reveals the soft side under Cassie’s brittle carapace. If the grindhouse-style poster suggests she’s a wet-lipped exterminator, the film itself offers up a far from triumphal heroine, one whose cause has consumed her life. It lingers on Cassie’s losses, hesitations and sacrifices, to create a chewily complex character. She’s so fully realised, in fact, that only the dorkily persistent Ryan registers alongside her. Everyone else, from Cassie’s bemused parents to her smugly oblivious former college pals, are cleverly crafted plot-easers, fuel for her determined rage.

In her delicately malevolent 2018 short Careful How You Go, and in the second series of Killing Eve, for which she was showrunner, Fennell showed her facility with female anger. As the film revs back into thriller mode, the calm, cold-eyed determination fuelling Cassie’s plans nods to assassin Villanelle.

Promising Young Woman (2020)

Though the thriller dips into the same pitch-black playfulness as the TV show, Mulligan’s extraordinary, chameleon performance gives the film way more emotional range and weight. The vulnerability she showed in films like 2011’s Shame and Drive is blended with anger, palpable pain and a dry wit. Mulligan is the film’s motor, powering it through its surprising turns. Her talents are essential to the shock tactics of the last act, with its risky twist-on-twist unravelling.

The ending will divide viewers down new faultlines, not necessarily those of woke-versus-bloke. Where slavering old-school revenge dramas like Lipstick (1978) and Dirty Weekend (1993) could be accused of exploitation, today’s female-helmed thrillers face a barrage of conflicting opinions. Still, the film seems opportune. If the grand guignol, man-eating revenge-comedy of Jennifer’s Body (2007) arrived too early to tap #MeToo rage, Promising Young Woman feels right on time. Cassie’s trail of vengeance proves a hell of a teaching tool for the viewer, as well as her targets.

Fennell’s film shows wittily and with high style how lack of accountability for sexual abusers is baked into the system. Calling out everything from everyday predation in bars and clubs to the complicity of bystanders to sexual assaults, it makes its audience look hard at what we’ve normalised and why. Watching Cassie mete out her rough justice, we’re being schooled as well as shocked.

Further reading

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