“Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?”
Emerald Fennell’s debut feature film, Promising Young Woman, has finally been released in the UK – and it could not have come at a more apt time. It’s been roughly six weeks since the news broke of the tragic death of Sarah Everard, a moment which led to women sharing their many & varied experiences of misogyny, as well as the precautions they feel compelled to take when walking home at night; it’s still not enough for some, however. It didn’t take long for the “not all men!” comments to come rolling in, or the suggestion that women need to be protected rather than men educated – and (depressingly but unsurprisingly) these weren’t just from men.
For anyone who still doesn’t understand where women are coming from, this film is the perfect primer. Firstly, the idea that women will automatically know which men to avoid and which are ‘nice’ is instantly debunked by the film being cast against viewer expectations, as actors who are known for playing good guys (such as Adam Brody & Max Greenfield) are placed in the role of the predator; this, along with the way the scenes are written, effortlessly shows that anyone could potentially be an attacker – no matter how nice they first appear to be.
Secondly, the argument that the woman should take better care of herself (by not getting too drunk or dressing a certain way) is expertly picked apart by Cassie (Carey Mulligan) multiple times throughout the film; if victim-blaming wasn’t so prevalent across society I might suggest it verges on being overdone, but clearly the message needs to get through somehow. Besides, what makes it so effective is its demonstration that different kinds of people do blame the woman – including other women. This is how rape culture exists and persists.
Finally, there’s a very clear message that men have to be actively against misogyny rather than simply not being misogynistic themselves – it’s vital they pull their friends up on their comments or behaviour, rather than standing idly by and regretting it later.
Promising Young Woman is a revenge film – just not the one you were anticipating. Cassie is a 30 year old medical school dropout who, on the surface, seems content with working in a local coffee shop and living with her parents. However, she has a secret ‘hobby’: once a week she’ll go out to a bar and feign drunkenness in an attempt to entice a man to take her back to his place and try to take advantage of her, only revealing her sobriety at the last minute. This vigilantism all stems from the devastating incident which caused her to discard her dreams of becoming a doctor, and seems to fuel her continued existence. A chance encounter with former med school classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham) sets Cassie off on a new & specific set of revenge missions, but this becomes complicated when their relationship develops. Can Cassie finally put the past behind her?
Fennell’s script is funny, smart & seriously dark. The drip-feeding of information in the first half of the film steadily teases out Cassie’s motives, and your expectations are subverted from beginning to end: whether it’s the predatory ‘nice’ guys or the twisted manner in which stage 5 of the plan comes together, there’s very little that you will actually see coming. The music plays a huge part in leading you down a certain path, particularly the ominous strings at moments of tension – and Anthony Willis’ instrumental arrangement of Toxic builds up to the film’s dramatic conclusion. It also doesn’t advocate female violence against men in the slightest, instead clearly showing that there are never any winners when it comes to vengeance – once you’re sucked into that black hole there’s no escaping it. Also, in the wrong hands this kind of story could very easily overdo depictions of violence against women (something that feels all too common), but Fennell has identified the bare minimum that’s necessary for the story and stuck with it.
As well as having a very powerful message, this film is incredibly aesthetically pleasing. Michael T. Perry’s production design places events in a candy-coloured world, where pastel shades & bold primary colours are used in tandem to show the different aspects of Cassie’s character – as well as wrongfoot the viewer into thinking the film doesn’t cover serious & troubling issues. Nancy Steiner’s costume design plays a big part in this (props to the wig department, too), ensuring Cassie has a disguise for every situation to allow her increasingly elaborate plans to succeed. The cinematography from DOP Benjamin Kracun is the icing on the cake, with some simply stunning shots during the course of the film.
The whole thing is rounded off by a powerful performance from Carey Mulligan; calm & collected as Cassie confronts an endless supply of predatory men, yet it’s clear that her vigilantism is bordering on obsession. The positive change in her character is clear to see when she takes the decision to move on, making it all the more crushing when she’s drawn back in – Mulligan gives her a moment of vulnerability before the shutters come down again and she steels herself for the task that lies ahead. An Oscar-worthy performance if ever I saw one.
My verdict? Funny, smart & seriously dark – this film consistently subverts your expectations, and keeps you guessing from beginning to end.
Promising Young Woman made its UK première on 16 April 2021 (Sky Cinema).