Carey Mulligan is a modern Woman in Black
I was intrigued by Promising Young Woman. It won a BAFTA for Outstanding British Film. The writer-director is London-born, Oxford-educated actress Emerald Fennell (Camilla from The Crown), while fellow Brit Carey Mulligan stars.
Fast forward to the plot…
Set in Ohio – not the UK capital like I 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 her campaign was her tragic friend Nina, who was assaulted by a male student. Disbelieved by the institutions that should have supported her, she eventually died by suicide. Cassie is on a mission to make those who failed her examine their actions.
Confronting the school dean who dismissed Nina’s case, Cassie pretends to have abducted her 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.
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 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.
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. 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.