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Promising Young Woman

*****
2021

‘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…’

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.

https://www.sky.com/watch/promising-young-woman

Thanks to Universal UK for screener access to this title.

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  1. Finally viewed this movie after reading your again marvelous review. When I first saw the trailer, I thought Hitchcock! Sure enough, some reviewers have compared this to a Hitch movie–102, there’s a blond and violence, but the egotistical, neurotic, misogynist is missing. The film gets the cinematic shots right and takes aim at a certain chakra on the human anatomy. Fennell and Mulligan do a great job of getting a message across using, as you say, ‘a stick of dynamite’ and making sure we see and feel the carnage. I think Fennell wrote for the show Killing Eve and it shows. This movie may become a classic! As always, stellar review.

    • ‘the egotistical, neurotic, misogynist is missing…’

      Right, and I think that is what makes this film a game-changer. Thriller have been seen from a make POV for a century; suddenly, the tables are turned and this film manages to mix entertaining and message to striking effect. Thanks for this comment; reviewing is like shouting into a void sometimes, but this makes it worthwhile!

  2. I watched it last night, over a year since the preview screening I had ticket for was cancelled in the shadow of Covid. Since then the hype for this film has grown enormously, and by now I expect most viewers will know its trajectory and the ending. But what a good film. I can see why the film has become a controversial discussion point. I agree its trailer does it a severe injustice, presenting it simply as a crusading, crass, anti-patriachy revenge film, but it’s so much better than that. It regularly wrong-footed me, and had a lot of ideas freshly presented. I can see why some people would want a more literal and sombre tone, but that would be a very different and probably less effective movie. I loved its very black irony, most obviously in the last few scenes, but the contrast between the bubblegum pop colours and the very serious and dark subject matter really worked for me.

    • Exactly, you’ve nailed it. Fresh presentation goes a long way, and also ducking cliches is good. I’m struggling to convince people to ignore the trailer and just watch the movie, it’s a great thriller, but also reflects a changing world in terms of zero tolerance for the kind of male behavior shown. I think it’s a game-changer, but not a film to recommend blindly die to the content. But there’s some relief at the route this film goes, it certainly doesn’t exploit the subject, but explores it in a way that is provocative and entertaining.

    • I see they have exclusivity, but hopefully not for long, otherwise it’ll restrict the audience big-time; feminist Sky-watchers?

        • They do have some Arts stuff, and should reflect a variety of film-making, but for this film to be on Sky exclusively suggests that they don’t know their audience….

    • As noted elsewhere, I hope we’re not over-hyping it, but it’s easily the pick of the awards bunch for me.

    • Having seen the whole thing, the trailer has to withhold the nub of the story, and the story is good. Thought I was going to hate it, to be honest, or at least feel ambivalent, but not, instant classic IMHO. Look forward to your take on it…

  3. I do want to see this one. Mulligan has some good roles under her belt, and this move garners a lot of praise of the kind that speaks to me.

    • I do hope we’re not over-hyping this, but I have to give my honest response which is that it’s electric. Look forward to hearing what you think.

  4. I had reservations about this one, too, but your review has put them to rest. Looking forward to it. I sometimes find Mulligan a bit samey, relying too often on some kind of smile or half-smile to convey emotion, but this could be a big breakthrough in acting terms.

    • It is, and like you, I’ve been a Mulligan denier in the past, but no more. Look forward to hearing what you think about this, but I don’t dust off the five stars lightly…

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