I didn’t much fancy the trailer for Promising Young Woman. Carey Mulligan as some kind of vengeful seductress, there’s some ambiguity about what she does to her victims; Emerald Fennell’s film looks like it might be some kind of glib horror/comedy riffing on the very real concerns of the MeToo movement. Having seen the final film, I have to fess up and say; I got it all wrong. Promising Young Woman is a devastatingly accurate missile directed at the sainted bastions of male privilege, has been a deserved front-runner in 2021’s awards races, and really is a proper ‘must-see’ film even for non-cineastes. Even after multiple delays in release, this is a film that’s relevant now, and should be seen by the widest possible audience, trigger warnings exempt.
Cassie Thomas (Mulligan) works in a coffee shop, and has a series of dalliances with all number of opportunistic young men who see her as a potential drunken conquest or easy lay. Cassie, however is playing a long game, and one that’s not obvious from the outset. She’s plotting revenge on behalf of a friend who has been raped, and there’s method in her madness, although that method threatens to get Cassie into the hottest of hot water. And there’s also a question behind Cassie’s motives; what damage is she doing to herself in her quest to bring those who abused her friend to justice?
There would be every excuse for Promising Young Woman to explicitly depict the kind of sexual violence concerned here, but Fennell’s film studiously avoids content and imagery that might feel like a come-on. This is a film with a brisk, deeply cinematic narrative, and one with twists and surprises; it’s not an awards friendly version of I Spit on Your Grave, not does it work as an exploitation movie. Fennell’s script takes audience expectations and subverts them ingeniously; the ending is agonisingly moving, but not in a way that you’ll see coming, and that’s a secret best left un-discussed for now. Mulligan is absolutely terrific in a slippery role, and her strength and vulnerability keep the audience on edge throughout; whoever wins the big acting prizes this year, there will always be an argument that Mulligan deserves them more for her work here.
Like any movements, Me Too has its detractors, but Promising Young Woman is the kind of cinematic outing that’ll win convers to the idea of accountability; riffing on the undying furore around the Brett Kavanagh Supreme Court nomination, and many, many other miscarriages of justice, Fennell comes to the valid conclusion that changing attitudes is not enough, behaviour must change too. Bo Burnham has a key supporting role in which we understand how supporting the cause of equality is not enough, and zero tolerance of violence is a bare minimum for us all to move forward on the same page. With a knockout performance from Mulligan, Promising Young Woman is a baroque, aggressive pop-art sensation, a stick of dynamite up the patriarchy, and the one essential breakout film of the 2021 awards season. Out today in the UK on Sky Cinema and Now TV.
Thanks to Universal UK for screener access to this title.