It’s an understatement to say that British actress Emerald Fennell is on a roll. Previously appearing in classical dramas and supporting feature film roles, she currently has an integral role as Camilla Shand in the latest season of The Crown. She is also making an impact behind the camera. Starring Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham, Promising Young Woman follows Cassie (Mulligan), a former medical student now working in a coffee shop. Still suffering from the traumatic loss of her best friend Nina, she lives a double life at night until an unexpected reunion with classmate Ryan (Burnham) puts her on the road of revenge.
Marking Fennell’s directorial debut, Promising Young Woman premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and quickly became one of this year’s most long-awaited films. However, it became another casualty of the COVID pandemic, which has delayed its UK release until February 2021.
Although precarious, the first ten minutes set the film’s dark tone. Amid a haze of neon lights, the sexist comments of drunken idiots and an unsuspecting woman give the audience cause for concern. That is until a smirk changes the dynamic of the scene while turning our damsel in distress into an endearing heroine.
Given its central themes and Cassie’s motivation, Promising Young Woman is very much a product of the #MeToo movement – and an exploration of rape culture. Her crusade of confronting men convinced they are “nice guys”, but ultimately aren’t, becomes a plan for vengeance. But the plot intensifies when an upcoming wedding turns Cassie’s attention to her – and Nina’s – former peers. Their feeble excuses and a general lack of remorse set a moderately high shock level, but only if you don’t think about how real victims are the first to be blamed for crimes committed against them. Cassie directly experiences this during tense encounters with the dean of her former university (Connie Britton) and Cassie’s former classmate Madison (Alison Brie), which in turn fuels her anger and threatens to consume her.
The film has a dark premise and, sadly, rooted in an experience countless women have every year. Naturally, it is deeply affecting, with those emotions shifting through the full spectrum as the film takes its time to delve into the roots of Cassie’s hate. The event that set in motion the film’s plot, which not only derailed her future but also has stopped her from connecting to a romantic partner. In this, Cassie is essentially another victim of the brutality that destroyed her friend. As a result, she cannot move on. While the doe-eyed Ryan teases a potential future and Alfred Molina’s remorseful lawyer hints that guilt can lead to redemption, they are unable to sway Cassie from her mission.
In the commanding lead role, Mulligan breaks out of the ‘girl-next-door’ persona in a career-defining performance. Bold and daring, she steals every scene she’s in by delivering Fennell’s sharply written screenplay with confidence. In that respect, Promising Young Woman offers a reprieve to the usual format of a movie about revenge, as words are Cassie’s weapon of choice – with horrific consequences when actual weapons are deployed.
As the former showrunner of acclaimed drama Killing Eve, Fennell has proven that she isn’t afraid to take risks. The combination of her bold script and smart direction focuses on the erratic Cassie to keep audiences on their toes. She also incorporates pastel and neon pink flashes, as well as a catchy pop soundtrack, to bring a twisted softness to suburban Ohio.
Provocative and rebellious, Promising Young Woman is a stunning directorial debut of Fennell while Mulligan continues her string of strong female characters.
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