Promising Young Woman Movie Poster

Promising Young Woman – my review


Carey Mulligan is a modern Woman in Black

Promising Young Woman won a BAFTA for Outstanding British Film. Its writer-director is the London-born, Oxford-educated actress Emerald Fennell (Camilla from The Crown), with fellow Brit Carey Mulligan in the title role.

Fast forward to the plot…

Set in a sunny Ohio for some reason – not the UK capital like you might have assumed – thirtysomething medical school dropout Cassie lives in her parents’ suburban home, working shifts at a local coffee shop.

In the evenings she feigns drunkenness at nightclubs, luring so-called “nice” guys into taking her home to their bachelor pads before – bam! – she reveals her sobriety. She then launches into a lecture about the evils of a society that sees incapacitated women as fair game.

We discover that the trigger for Cassie’s actions was personal tragedy and the callous silence from institutions that should have support victims. It’s part of her wider mission to exact revenge and force the people responsible for her loss to examine their actions.

Review includes discussion of the movie for those that already seen it…

Mulligan is The Woman in Black in cupcake pastels. She’s not the first actress I’d have picked for the role, but it’s easily her most visually striking performance to date. A critic for Variety suggested that the charismatic Margot Robbie – a producer on the film – would have been a better fit. Yet this might have given the subconscious suggestion that only women like Robbie attract toxic men.

The review hit a nerve with Carey, who for the record looks box office throughout. Described by Variety as “bad drag”, her already iconic nurse getup is more Joker or Pennywise than sexy stripper. A deliberate choice to make the character seem even more stylized?

Given Carey’s reaction, apparently not.

Yet it’s not a believable psychological portrait. Cassie’s life is stunted, although not as a result of her own ordeal. Her parents are non-entities because they aren’t useful to the plot. She could have worked with victims to honour her friend’s memory. Or get therapy. Instead she’s all incoherent, exhausting rage.

Confronting the school dean who dismissed her tragic friend Nina’s rape case, Cassie pretends to have abducted the Dean’s underage daughter and abandoned her in a dorm of drunk frat boys. The terrified parent’s reaction illustrates the cognitive dissonance on real world campuses. In this denunciation of rape culture, Fennell toys with revenge thriller, black comedy and macabre horror. Candy-colour visuals plus an addictive pop soundtrack play a memorable role.

She infiltrates a bachelor party for Nina’s rapist, attended by the same college pals who watched, jeering, during her assault. Cassie ties him up, planning to dish out some Lisbeth Salander-style justice. Alas, men are stronger than women, which apparently is a shock to modern audiences. He slips out of his bonds, and kills her.

It’s a non-Hollywood fate which proved divisive with audiences. We expect our screen heroines to be able to “fight off any man”. Or perhaps viewers suspected she was a malevolent spirit in human disguise unleashed on a toxic culture. Rather like Pennywise, she’d shape shift into her true form at the end.

It’s such a strange, off-its-axis film, it wouldn’t have been a jarring conclusion.

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