Promising Young Woman review
We were first promised Promising Young Woman‘s release a full year ago now. This provocative and acute black comedy debuted at the 2020 Sundance Festival all the way back in January. It was supposed to be released in cinemas worldwide in April, but was delayed – for fairly obvious reasons. Locked cinemas doors meant it never saw a big screen here, but did enjoy a limited release Stateside towards the end of the year.
Twelve months on and us Brits can finally enjoy this unique and memorable movie via streaming services. And we’d recommend that you do.
Written and directed by the British actress, writer, showrunner and producer Emerald Fennell, this is one helluva film debut from her. That said, Fennell is no stranger to heading up top drawer female-led productions. She was recruited by good pal Phoebe Waller-Bridge to replace her as head writer of the second series of Killing Eve, a run that was arguably even better than the first – no mean feat. This is Fennell’s first time behind the camera, though. Not that you’d know.
Promising Young Woman is bold, confident and assured from its very first scene… It’s late night in a bar and ‘nice guy’ Jerry (The OC’s Adam Brody) approaches a visibly inebriated woman and offers to help her get home safely. Y’know, before something bad happens… before some scuzzy guy takes advantage. Of course, that’s exactly Jerry’s plan. Only it turns out that his new friend and target Cassie isn’t intoxicated. It’s a trap.
Cassie (Carey Mulligan), we soon learn, is a dab hand at luring men in this way. Practice makes perfect, after all. Jerry wasn’t her first mark. Judging by the tally she keeps in her notepad, she’s an old hand. Some of the men are attacked or killed, though the violence is wisely unshown, others are let off with a warning ringing in their ears. All learn a valuable lesson about the nature of sexual consent.
To the casual viewer, the film’s 113-minute run time can easily be enjoyed at face value. This is a revenge thriller, albeit a rather clever, subverted one. Bad guys are lined up and an avenging angel knocks them down. To the movie buff more interested in themes, meanings and messages, you don’t have to squint too hard to read the subtext here.
It’s maybe a little trite to call a film about date rape, toxic masculinity and sexism ‘timely’. Especially as the #MeToo movement gained traction on social media almost four years ago now. But there’s no escaping the fact that this movie, about a woman dishing out justice to predatory and sexually opportunistic men, resonates infinitely more in the wake of recent years’ attention to the issue.
There’s more to this piece than just a tale of an angry woman who, incensed at the college days rape of her best friend, turns rogue to entrap, humiliate and uncover rapists, sleazebags and misogynists. This is also the story of the impact of survivor’s guilt and the trauma it can cause. Cassie’s drive here is to make men that sexually exploit women pay to atone for her friend’s suicide. Nina took her life after being date raped at a frat party. And Cassie – wrongly, of course – feels partly responsible.
Redemption and healing is offered in the form of Ryan, an old classmate played with charm and subtlety by former stand-up comedian Bo Burnham. His and Cassie’s blossoming relationship hits a rather immovable blockade though, when our antiheroine makes a chilling discovery about her new beau Bo…
Carey Mulligan is, unsurprisingly, superb throughout. The The Great Gatsby and Collateral actress is a huge talent, we’ve known that since her film debut in Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation of Pride & Prejudice. Even by her lofty standards though, this is outstanding work.
Fennell’s apprenticeship on Killing Eve is obvious here. The style, pace and tonal shifts delight in a very similar way. There’s also excellent use of languid pop music as a jukebox soundtrack. Plus the delicious aesthetics of the film’s palette are constantly delightful. The pale pinks and bright reds combine to create a living ice cream sundae you just want to greedily hack at with a long spoon.
The script pops at every opportunity too. ‘It’s every guy’s worst nightmare, being accused like that,’ Cassie’s main target indignantly shouts at her at one point. ‘Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is…?’ comes her killer reply.
Without giving too much away – but maybe look away if you don’t want a light spoiler – the end does disappoint somewhat. There’s a good reason for it: it’s not the ending that Fennell wrote. There’s a false ending, some five minutes before the end that would have been a perfect stopping point to the story. End it there and the impact of the thing is doubled. Money talks, though and a more ‘suitable’ and far more ‘Hollywood’ ending was substituted in. It’s one that is more satisfying from a narrative perspective, but does dilute the message ever so slightly. That said, it’s a climax that still packs a wallop.
Promising Young Woman is a smart, stylish and thought-provoking piece of work made by a promising young filmmaker. Promise yourself you’ll stream it.
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