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29th December 2023

Promising Young Woman didn’t deserve a release, nevermind an Oscar

As Saltburn dominates FilmTok, Emerald Fennell’s misguided feature debut is once again back in a spotlight that it never deserved
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Promising Young Woman didn’t deserve a release, nevermind an Oscar
Photo: Promising Young Woman @ Focus Features

Quick quiz. “You didn’t think this was the end, did you?”, is the final line from which of the following? A) Descendants 2, a TV movie sequel for Disney Channel, B) Señorita, a Wattpad Shawn Mendes fan fiction or C) Promising Young Woman, recipient of the 2020 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Any guesses?

It’s all of them.

Content Warning: Discussions of rape and sexual violence.

This corny little kernel of a one-liner is our final word from Carey Mulligan’s protagonist Cassie, a once-promising young woman, now consumed by a mission to avenge her late friend Nina, who committed suicide years prior after being raped. Hungry for vengeance and dismissed by the police, Cassie decides to solve sexism by sporadically giving a smack on the wrist to predatory men at bars, before masquerading as a stripper, shackling Nina’s rapist to a bed, lecturing him about rape culture and then somehow getting herself strangled by an aforementioned rapist in the process.

But girl bosses never die! Cassie sends out her foreboding last words via (somehow pink) text message, leaving evil Bo Burnham and the rest of his frat boys/rape accomplices to a hoard of invading police in a slow-mo arrest sequence that wouldn’t be out of place in Riverdale.

There’s a lot to process there. In many ways, a convoluted, contradictory ‘plot twist’ was the perfect conclusion to a film that cheerfully butchered themes of revenge, rage and trauma with girlboss ‘gotcha’ moments and recycled, surface-level feminist buzz lines.

Promising young woman emerald fennell
Photo: Emerald Fennell on set of Promising Young Woman @ Focus Features

The script’s constant stumbles into predictability suggested that Fennell had simply taken inspirational Etsy prints from the offices of every millennial white woman currently in middle management, threw them in an incubator with 2013’s colour of the year (teal) and just ran with the resultant freakish, candy-coloured Eraserhead-baby abomination of a screenplay. A screenplay which drags itself around on pointless plot twists like the legless last dinosaurs of CW shows, coughing up milkshake straws and wheezing out lines like “smash the patriarchy”.

I’m getting very upset. But what I’m trying to emphasise is that Promising Young Woman barely deserved to make it to pre-production, let alone the Oscars. Fennell’s writing isn’t nuanced or clever enough to tackle basic dialogue, let alone deep dives into survivor’s guilt, collective rage and sexual violence. Winning an Oscar in 2021 was like getting your GCSEs in Summer 2020; it just didn’t really count. That said, Fennell still faced tight competition from the screenplays for Minari, Sound of Metal and Judas and the Black Messiah. And somehow, she won.

Every year, the Oscars make it harder to walk away and not smash my head off of a cement wall. 2020’s lack of releases could have been utilised to nominate films from genres that usually get swept under the rug. Instead, the Academy focused its praise on a certified ‘woman film’, which essentially consisted of a highlight reel of the whitest, cringiest and most reductive feminist notions of the past decade.

And I hate to give the French anything, but the original rape revenge film served a purpose that Fennell somehow swerved, depicting vigilante justice as an outlet for aggression necessitated by a misogynistic justice system. Fennell gleefully exploits the rogue revenge fun with none of the subtext, with Cassie’s death sequence constituting the only actual on-screen violence; a solid two minutes and 50 seconds of femicide.

And fine, if the goal was to avoid the ‘Hollywood ending’ and smack the audience in the face with realism, then great. Make that choice. But why then pull the punch? Why enact justice in the film’s final moments, implying that the most noble thing that women can do is die?

Fennell undermines her own criticisms of the police’s response to violence against women, leaving cops that ignored the original rape allegation to enact Cassie’s epic Twitter own justice from beyond the grave. The writer/director fittingly punctuates her living contradiction of a film with a hard period that borderline says back the blue.

In fact, why pull every punch? We’re led to believe that Cassie kills the multiple bar loiterers that try to rape her when in actuality she lectures them. Now, now, says Fennell, we need not castrate the rapists; if you sternly tell them to stop then you too can solve rape and go add another tally to your stupid little notebook.

Fennell seemed far too proud of herself for misrepresenting the complexities of true justice in the shadow of rape, seeming to lack any empathy for the subject matter. The film wasn’t cathartic, deep, or even entertaining; just a garish candy shell with an achingly hollow core. Promising Young Woman’s marketing promised a pulpy rape-revenge thriller but delivered a half-baked attempt at subverting a genre that it never had the brains to understand.

Promising Young Woman offered critiques of rape culture and male complacency that fifteen-year-olds with Instagram infographic accounts have communicated more efficiently. Anyone that needs Carey Mulligan in a rainbow wig to tell them that rape victims get no justice is already dead from the neck up, and the rest of the film isn’t nearly clever enough to justify Fennell being allowed to drive a car, let alone write screenplays.

There’s a lot more to be said, but going through every second of this film and picking apart all the meaningless dialogue and tacked-on religious imagery would genuinely send me over the edge. Final note for Emerald Fennell: stop binging The West Wing. Also, I’m not watching your stupid The Talented Mr Ripley remake.

If you’re struggling with the subjects discussed in this article, please reach out.

You can contact the Greater Manchester Rape Crisis helpline on 01612734500.

If you wish to report to the University or access support mechanisms, you can do so here.

Additionally, there is a Manchester Survivor Supporter Pack here.

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