A vibrant feature debut from writer-director Emerald Fennell that showcases the talents of Carey Mulligan
We seem to be in a era where women are not just feeling more able to speak their truth, but the belief and acceptance needed to support that step is growing too. Huge progress is still needed, still there are some men who seem untouchable, or somehow able to shake off the tarnish being applied to their reputation and character. Young white men from affluent families being referred to in the media as “Ex-Stanford Swimmer” rather than the more accurate “Rapist” for instance. Promising Young Woman takes aim at the brazenness that persists, fueled by the belief they can get away with, and the misogyny that has permeated our culture as a result.
To make the change, we all need to do our part, but Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is going above and beyond to disrupt the status quo. A once promising medical career cut short, she now lives with her parents and spends her days working in a coffee shop. By night, she’s setting up in bars, looking disheveled, and on the verge of being paraletic. Inevitably some good Samaritan will approach, offer their help, and escort her home. The predicament that follows is to respect her inability to give consent, or try to make a move on her. When the latter occurs, a lucid Cassie confronts them, and sets about making sure they don’t pull that shit ever again. Her one woman mission to take down the patriarchy is complicated by an encounter with an old college friend. The ensuing romance forces her to contemplate he might not be as toxic as the rest of them, but things are thrown into the air when a blast from the past forces her to reckon with why she went on this path of retribution in the first place.
Promising Young Woman marks an auspicious feature debut for writer-director Emerald Fennell, perhaps best known as the second season showrunner for Killing Eve. A devious and devilish tale with a distinct visual swagger, showcasing how easily a guy can crossover from a white knight to something abhorrent. The shifting of power, the maneuvering and control. the calculations of Cassie are fascinating to watch, as is the scurrying of the men who get caught in her trap. As well as driving home the importance of consent, it underscores the lingering trauma that comes from sexual assault. The darker fare is tempered by a black streak of comedy, notably Cassie’s acerbic character, and flair for visual humor that apparent throughout the film, along with a bright, pop culture aesthetic. There’s something very satisfying about witnessing a wronged woman wreak havoc upon deserving men, but Fennell’s script and direction offers up a more refreshing and nuanced take on a familiar theme.
Carey Mulligan is a captivating presence whenever on screen and Promising Young Woman deploys her to devastating effect. A dry wit is brought to the fore, as is volatility, focus, and a deep sadness. Defensive and vulnerable in equal measure, Mulligan deserves all the plaudits this awards season. Bo Burnham takes what could be an impossibly difficult role as the man meant to break through Cassie’s shell, turning in a genuinely charming, and authentic performance. Their chemistry (and conflict) really drives some of the twists and turns the film takes. Laverne Cox, Alfred Molina, Alison Brie, and Molly Shannon are a treat in supporting roles, and Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge just shine as Cassie’s parents. Perhaps the most astute casting choices are the men who cross Cassie’s path; Adam Brody (The OC), Max Greenfield (New Girl), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Superbad), Chris Lowell (Veronica Mars), Sam Richardson (Veep), all affable male actors that have likely graced the walls of many girls or come across as disarming and trustworthy in their past work. It’s a savvy move by Fennell and the casting team of Lindsay Graham and Mary Vernieu.
Since release, there has been some commentary accusing Promising Young Woman of pulling its punches. As a fan of genre and exploitation cinema, I can see the point. Thematically (and stylistically) it may feel akin to those revered films like Kill Bill, Ms. 45, Lady Vengeance, and Lady Snowblood. Visceral fare where feminism is championed in the form of pain and bloodletting. The difference here is the tale is told with a woman’s eye, and pen. Female grief, not rage, is the driving force. Cassie’s ambition isn’t a wholesale wreaking of havoc, it is a wake-up call, a leveling of the playing field, and a demand for respect and equality. These promising young men are not deserving of more than these promising young women, or indeed any woman. Be it an exceptional young medical student or a girl with dyed hair slurring her speech in a bar. Promising Young Woman is a film that flashes it’s teeth rather than sinking them in, but that doesn’t detract from the jolt it delivers. No single work will tackle these issue or covers all their complexities, but we should welcome the female voices that lead the way.
The Blu-ray transfer for Promising Young Woman is overall well presented. Colors are strongly represented, important with the palette selection, as is detail. Black levels are all deep, skin tones are natural, and no artifacts are notable. There is a little noise in parts, particularly in darker sequences, but nothing that detracts from the image too much. Extra features are a little underwhelming, with only the audio commentary offering anything substantial:
- A Promising Vision: Just over 4 minutes, touching on the overarching themes, the hesitation to embrace violence, direction, and the development of Bo Burnham’s character
- Two-Sided Transformation: A short collection of discussions concerning Carey Mulligan’s and her character Cassie
- Balancing Act: Cast and crew chat about balancing the humor and dramatic elements
- Audio Commentary: A pretty expansive and informative commentary. Great on detail about intent, production, music, and more. One can’t help but want something a little less restrained to accompany the film
- Digital download code
The Bottom Line
For a film that has sparked so much interest, its surprising that its home video release is being celebrated with such a sparsely supported package. Despite this, Promising Young Woman remains a potent work. A statement of intent by Emerald Fennell in terms of style and substance, and a tour de force performance from Carey Mulligan that lingers long in the mind.
Promising Young Woman is available on Blu-ray from March 16th