Promising Young Woman, review: Carey Mulligan’s feminist revenge lights up this controversial gem

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Robbie Collin
·4 min read
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Carey Mulligan is the femme fatale – literally – in Emerald Fennell's Promising Young Woman - Focus
Carey Mulligan is the femme fatale – literally – in Emerald Fennell's Promising Young Woman - Focus
  • Dir: Emerald Fennell. Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Connie Britton, Alfred Molina, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox. 15 cert, 113 mins

What does it mean when a movie seems to materialise at the perfect moment, only for it to become even more pricklingly pertinent over the next year and a half? In the case of Promising Young Woman, it means that Emerald Fennell, its writer and director, is onto something. When Fennell’s film had its British premiere at last year’s Glasgow Film Festival, at the blissfully crammed pre-pandemic screening I attended, it struck me as an arch and heightened provocation – a sort of Basic Instinct for the #MeToo age. But in 2021, with male-on-female violence and sexual assault swirling freshly in the headlines, it seems to ring with redoubled urgency and sadness.

Of course, the themes with which Promising Young Woman grapples aren’t remotely new or niche. That is partly why it’s so horribly gripping: much as we might wish otherwise, we recognise the dynamics at work, and our guts warn us in advance where all of it is headed. A double winner at the Baftas and winner of the Best Original Screenplay award at the Academy Awards, it stars Carey Mulligan as Cassie Thomas, a medical student-turned-listless coffee-shop employee who still lives with her parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge), even though she’s fast approaching 30. When we meet her, she’s seemingly passed out on the banquette in a sleazy nightclub, while three men at the bar take turns to leer and tut.

“They put themselves in danger, girls like that,” sighs one. “Especially with the kind of guys you get in this club.” (None of them seem to realise, let alone care, that they’re talking about themselves – Fennell’s script is pitilessly sharp on male cognitive dissonance.) Sleazebag #1 swaggers over, introduces himself, and ends up taking her home, for an evening that doesn’t pan out quite as expected. Cut to the following morning’s walk of shame, as Cassie heads home, retrieves a notebook from under her bed, scribbles down a man’s name, and adds a tally mark to a very long list. Something is being zealously notched here, and it isn’t a bedpost.

A little while ago, there was much consternation over a review of Promising Young Woman in Variety which suggested – entirely reasonably – that Mulligan, the public-schooled queen of windswept period restraint, is the last actress you might expect to see as a platinum-haired honey trap. (Mulligan took the review to mean she was “not hot enough” for the role, prompting the magazine to run an embarrassing, craven retraction.)

In truth, the air of not-quite-rightness surrounding Mulligan as Cassie is partly why she’s so extraordinary here: as we watch her sullenly serving coffee, half-buried under bushy blonde locks, there is a needling sense that this woman is not who she should be, and that multiple layers of imposture are at play.

We are drip-fed the specifics of Cassie’s game over the film’s opening act, but it isn’t a spoiler to say she has transformed herself into a living, breathing cautionary tale, in response to a traumatic event that is no less raw for being long past. However futilely, she is pushing back against a culture that regards men’s lives as the central plot line, and women as supporting players. (The title is an ironic reference to the case of Brock Turner, the Stanford University swimmer who in 2016 was sentenced to just six months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, after his “promising” athletic career was repeatedly referenced in his trial.) Yet Fennell seems to get her not-all-men caveat in quick with the early appearance of Ryan (Bo Burnham, creamily personable): a charming, flirtatious, sensitive paediatric surgeon who might just be the nice guy to lift Cassie from her vengeful rut.

The pair’s courtship is wholly adorable, but also wildly unsettling in a film that pinballs between satire, horror, suspense and romantic comedy, and has you reassessing which of the four you are actually watching with every latest twist. Perhaps Fennell pursues this effect a little too doggedly at times, deploying a few too many self-contained cool moments that break the film’s sometimes-erratic narrative flow. But she is a natural stylist, with an attention to visual and sonic detail – the feast of fluff-and-floral-print costumes, the candy colour palette, the snaking strings of Anthony Willis’s score – that creates a cinematic world which feels both askew and absorbingly complete.

Viewers’ tolerance for its closing scenes may depend on how easily they can reconcile a B-movie-ish hit of catharsis with a more serious reckoning with issues of complicity, expedience and tactical turnings of blind eyes. After two viewings, I still think it sticks the landing. This is a film that illuminates its pitch-black subject in queasy, dazzling neon.

Available on Sky Cinema and NOW TV from tomorrow