Every now and then a film comes along that social media grabs onto and the hype train begins long before the actual release date. Promising Young Woman was definitely one of those films. On the screen, Brits will know Emerald Fennell from her years on beloved BBC drama Call The Midwife, and the wider world will probably know her for for taking on Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown. Off the screen, she’s also been responsible for writing the second season of Killing Eve, altogether a rather stellar resume so far! Everything that I had read about Fennell’s feature writing and directorial debut had me excited, but could the the film live up the #FilmTwitter hype?
Ultimately, I’d have to say in some ways yes, and in some ways no. Promising Young Woman is a dark comedy thriller that tells the story of Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan), a 30 year old woman, long traumatised by the college sexual assault of her best friend, who embarks on a campaign of retribution to avenge the events that have so drastically affected the course of her life. There are some who might be immediately turned off by the ‘rape revenge’ premise of the film, but I don’t mind the bold provocative nature of the plot at all. Promising Young Woman feels like a breath of fresh air in an industry that is currently dominated by sequels and remakes, and the first two thirds of the narrative gave me everything that I was looking for. From cool, stimulating visuals to wickedly dark comic situations that are designed to make you feel uncomfortable, it does so many things right from minute one to about minute eighty.
From a personal point of view, however, the film’s final act, whilst staying true to its bold and provocative ethos, actually works to undo some of the interesting work that it had done up to that point. I can’t go into details without giving away too many spoilers, but what I will say is that I think Fennell’s screenwriting puts the story’s climactic justice in the hands of the wrong party. I think that the intention is to leave the audience with a feeling of ‘gotcha’ euphoria by the time the credits role, but I can’t deny that as time went by, it started to leave a strange taste in my mouth.
The best way I can describe Promising Young Woman is this; the film feels very much like a late night weekend takeaway. You enjoy the heck out of it at the time, followed by mounting regret as you realise the error of the decisions you’ve made. I can see all of the issues, but when the mood catches me that takeaway still tastes hella good. Don’t get me wrong, this movie is going to be a big player at the business end of awards season, and I did enjoy it, but I don’t necessarily align myself with the blind love for it that many people seem to have.
Something that cannot be argued is the excellence of Carey Mulligan’s leading performance. As Cassie, Mulligan effortlessly guides the audience through a story that is one moment light and fluffy and the next searingly painful. She’s an oddball, but also weirdly relatable, a character that you root for despite understanding the problematic nature of her actions. She will quite rightly be a strong contender for many of the Best Actress awards up for grabs soon, especially those that separate drama and comedy. Although, she’d be in with a shout for both to be honest!
Bo Burnham is also excellent as Ryan Cooper, Mulligan’s new love interest with a connection to her past, and further strong supporting performances are given by the likes of Alison Brie, Laverne Cox, Jennifer Coolidge, Alfred Molina, Chris Lowell, Connie Britton and Max Greenfield. There isn’t a single bad performance across the entire cast, and Emerald Fennell even makes a small cameo in classic Hitchcock and Tarantino fashion!
Overall, you can tell by my plethora of mixed feelings that Promising Young Woman is a bold, evocative film that I think is going to prove very divisive among audiences. The picture is at its best when the script aims laser focus satire on the skin crawling hypocrisy of stereotypical ‘Nice Guys’, and curiously, in the moments when Cassie is interacting with the other women in the story rather than the other men. A desire to wrap things up in a clever, almost Gone Girl type fashion is where some of my gripes start to surface, but perhaps I’m being way too picky, I don’t know! It’s fresh, it’s wild and it’s absolutely worth a watch. I’m excited to see what Emerald Fennell has in store for us next.