Promising Young Woman, the directorial debut for writer-director Emerald Fennell, follows a young woman called Cassie, played by a superb Carey Mulligan and aptly named after the Trojan Priestess Cassandra, as she seeks justice for her best friend who was a victim of rape.
Cassie begins the film as a young woman clearly in pain but also a woman on a mission. From the offset, she is presented as a force to be reckoned with. Unwavering in her firm commitment to her own form of justice, she feigns being drunk to lure men, often supposed “nice-guys”, into taking her home and attempting to initiate non-consensual sex – or in other words, exposes them for what they truly are – predatory, attempted rapists.
The film takes its time to fully reveal the larger story at play. The first act mainly focuses on Cassie’s interactions with these men, showing in a darkly comic fashion the extent of rape culture and how people react to being called out. This part of the film allows Fennell to establish her characters and allows her to show off her flair as a director with the camera brimming with deeply ironic shots of men meant to evoke glitzy music videos alongside a colour palette brimming with hot pinks and bright colours despite the film’s darkening tone.
The film then begins to answer some of our questions surrounding Cassie’s mission and why she does what she does. Whilst it takes its time to reveal its full hand, the use of well-known and widely liked actors in “bit-parts” is one of the film’s strengths. Actors like Alison Brie, Alfred Molina and Connie Britton are cast as deeply unlikeable characters that could unfortunately be very real people – all of whom promote the notion that because both parties were drunk then it’s “her fault”. In other words, victim blaming.
Despite its nihilism and hyper-focus on vengeance, the film leans into the romantic genre a lot. For all the talk of a genre-blending phenomena, Promising Young Woman does lean too heavily into the romance plot line. At times the film’s tone can feel inconsistent, and for all its darkness and nihilism the film’s use of irony sometimes feels a little heavy-handed. The editing and screenplay can leave something to be desired. It’s difficult to get into the details without spoilers, but for all the great and shocking moments throughout, the film feels too neat and idealised despite its inherent darkness.
This could be a result of its refusal to answer the question as to why these issues of misogyny and victim blaming are the case. Not every film has to be a Ken Loach-style examination of everything wrong with society but for a film made in the 21st century it seems to (perhaps purposefully) gloss over a lot of the issues surrounding attitudes towards women, minorities and the role of the police. It hints at some of these but never fully delves into them, which for me undermines Fennell’s skilful direction, Mulligan’s Oscar-worthy performance and the brilliant design elements of the film.
We are never actually given much of a character in Cassie. Her motivations are clear but again they are never fully explored, and she is never fully developed as a character. A story like this could possibly be told better on TV, where the writers are able to craft a narrative around a central character and explore multiple facets like psychology, identity and politics all whilst maintaining a strong ensemble. #MeToo films are still an emerging sub-genre of sorts so perhaps we’ll start getting deeper films within the next few years but Promising Young Woman does lead the charge with its timely message that feels like its increasingly important.
Despite these issues, Promising Young Woman is still one of the best films of the year. Some final elements to praise are the films overall design and aesthetic. The costumes help develop Cassie’s character and show how she’s playing multiple roles in order to achieve justice and carry out her mission whilst the eclectic soundtrack helps to bring out the film’s dark humour and underlying irony.
However, one issue I have with these stylistic elements is one scene set in a pharmacy. Cassie and her love interest Ryan (played by a wonderful Bo Burnham) dance to Paris Hilton’s song Stars Are Blind. Now, this is perfectly acceptable but was too much for me. Perhaps I’m just dead inside but this irritated me more than I thought “aww, how cute”. Mainly because if you shifted the location across the Atlantic to a Boots in grey Manchester you’d most likely be called a wanker and kicked out the store. And for a good reason. Although I’d hope us Brits would have more sense than to dance to mid-noughties pop music in the middle of a shop.
Clearly, Promising Young Woman is a promising debut feature from Emerald Fennell and another outstanding performance from Carey Mulligan. As much as I loved Frances McDormand in Nomadland, I really think Mulligan should win the Oscar. It’s a long-time coming and her performance was layered, dynamic and showcased the type of versatility and range a Best Actress Oscar warrants. Whilst Fennell’s screenplay left more to be desired, her direction and command of the camera makes me excited to see her next project, whatever that may be.
Ultimately, Promising Young Woman is a very good movie that borders on greatness. Despite my issues with the extent of its social commentary, it is undeniable that this is the most important film of the past year. It is the epitome of #EducateYourSon and should be screened for all 16-25 year olds as part of sex and consent education.
Amidst all its style and institutionalism, the underlying message of Promising Young Woman is that sexual assault is inexcusable and needs to be perceived as wrong if we are ever to rectify the issues this film exposes.