In 'Promising Young Woman,' Carey Mulligan is not starring in the revenge movie you expect

Andrea Mandell, USA TODAY
·4 min read

Carey Mulligan initially didn’t know quite what to make of the sugary, poisonous tale of consent and revenge set up in “Promising Young Woman.”

That's when director Emerald Fennell (who helmed Season 2 of “Killing Eve” and stars as Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, in “The Crown”) dispatched a mood board that set the thriller against a backdrop of tunes such as Britney Spears' “Toxic” and Paris Hilton’s “Stars are Blind.”

Such are the pop punches “Promising Young Woman,” available on on demand Friday, pulls in its dark, twisty tale about a medical school dropout named Cassie (Mulligan) whose life is upended by the rape of her best friend. By day Cassie works in a postage-sized coffee shop, her candy-colored manicure and cheerful wardrobe a winking shield against her sadness. By night, she trolls bars posing as a drunk, waiting to see if any nice young men pounce.

It’s an unexpected take on devastation, which is entirely the point.

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"Our focus from the beginning was not on a kind of revenge narrative. It was about why she was doing what she was doing,” says star Carey Mulligan.
"Our focus from the beginning was not on a kind of revenge narrative. It was about why she was doing what she was doing,” says star Carey Mulligan.

“Our focus from the beginning was not on a kind of revenge narrative. It was about why she was doing what she was doing,” says Mulligan, 35. "Promising" played to raves at Sundance Film Festival before its original April release was shelved because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Cassie, she says, is mourning “a best friend, the kind of best friend that you have when you're a teenager, who's the center of your universe … and then they go to college and this event happens that derails both of them.”

Fennell sought Mulligan, who most recently starred in period films such as "Mudbound" and "Suffragette," to play against type as Cassie. Noting the actress has never taken on an action role before, the director says Mulligan’s private nature – the Oscar nominee lives quietly in the British countryside with her husband, musician Marcus Mumford, and their two children – made her all the more appealing.

“She does only the things she wants to do and then disappears,” Fennell says. "Not only is she extremely talented but she is particular … what she cares about is being completely real all the time.”

At heart, the pragmatic Cassie, who has moved back home and abandoned her ambition, is not a viper; she's a woman craving the catharsis of an authentic apology. It’s only as her cynicism is proven right that Cassie's final act of revenge against her best friend's perpetrator forms.

“Getting girls drunk was a completely legitimate seduction method when I was growing up. And that's really important because we can't just pretend this was just villains,” says Fennell, who costumes her bad guys in business suits and easy smiles. "It was endemic."

Boozy enticements have long been the punchline of coming-of-age comedies (frat guy gets nervous girl drunk), and Mulligan admits she, too, gave those movies a pass growing up. “Never did I question it, never did I think, ‘Oh, that's a bit (expletive) up.’ " In 2020, "I want my kids to grow up in a world where actually that’s seen for what it actually is.”

But three years after the #MeToo movement, headlines about workplace misogyny and sexual harassment have dimmed, especially as the pandemic has captured the world's focus. Meanwhile, domestic violence against women and girls has intensified in the past year, prompting the United Nations to warn against a "shadow pandemic."

Mulligan knows the public has "a tendency to sort of tire of certain sort of societal issues. And once we feel like we've changed a few things, then we've dealt with it. And we all know that that's not the case." She hopes "Promising," packaged as a candy-floss thriller, is a way "of getting people to examine their own behavior and continue the conversation."

Mulligan had planned for a relatively "normal" Christmas at home in accordance with local guidelines, before a new COVID-19 strain hit the London area, spurring fresh lockdowns across the U.K. The actress is set to start rehearsals in April for her next film, Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro.” And as soon as more vulnerable groups and health care workers get the immunizations, she says, she will not hesitate to be vaccinated. “The second, like my age group … comes in, I'm the first person in line,” she says, sticking her arm out on a video call.

And for what it's worth, the killer pop soundtrack to “Promising” is totally her jam.

In college, Mulligan recalls with relish, friends dubbed her Top 40 taste "Carey trash." At home with Mumford (who leads the folk rock band Mumford & Sons), “I'm in charge of music most of the time,” she laughs. “But I don't have a sort of highbrow taste in music at all, much to everyone else's disappointment.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Carey Mulligan is ready to shock you with 'Promising Young Woman'