Promising Young woman is a movie that has so much to say and knows exactly how to say it. The film is the feature directorial debut for Emerald Fennell, also an esteemed writer of Killing Eve season 2 and a star on The Crown. The story follows Cassie (played by Carey Mulligan) whose best friend Nina was sexually assaulted and the people responsible were not held accountable. Deeply affected by this tragic event in her past, Cassie lives a life where she seeks revenge out on those who were responsible. In the director’s words, this is a dark comedy, revenge thriller that tackles important issues in a perfectly balanced serious and comedic way. The less you know about this movie going in to it, the better your experience of it will be. So go watch it first, then read this review later. Also, be aware of triggering subject matter for sexual assault.
Where to even begin with this film. It is no secret that I absolutely love it and will try, to the best of my abilities, to explain why.
First of all, Emerald Fennell!!! Her framing of shots, close-ups, angles are all so expertly and artistically crafted that it’s hard to believe it’s her first time doing it. This movie wouldn’t be as great as it is were it not for her genius script. The witty and dark humour in this movie is part of what gives it its charm. The tone she gave this film was the most fitting. She uses a lighter and more comedic tone to shed light on a dark issue without ever making light of the seriousness of the subject matter. It’s a perfect balance, and one very few people could achieve so brilliantly. The script is incredible and is very deservingly generating Oscar buzz.
Fennell does a great job of creating a film that will surprise its audience. She has mastered the subverting of genres, so that this film doesn’t fit into any one category. From the very first scene, the viewer knows that they’re in for a new and wild ride. Usually, films with a premise like this would hyper-sexualize the female character. Promising Young woman does the opposite. You never see Cassie’s body as the main focus of a frame. Instead, this film starts off focused on men dancing in a club, letting the viewer know that this will be unlike any other female revenge story. Fennell also uses the score of the film as a genre-busting tool. From the intense thriller music in certain scenes to modern pop and revamped oldies, the score of the movie almost serves as another character in the film and adds so much depth and excitement to it.
While Emerald Fennell’s script and direction go a long way in cementing the greatness of this movie, Carey Mulligan is an essential piece of it. Her performance as Cassandra Thomas is tantalizing and Mulligan’s definite best so far in her career. It will surely get her her second Oscar nomination come this April. Cassie as a character is one you can’t help but love. She’s obviously troubled and deeply affected by what happened to her friend, leaving her constantly suspicious of men and their intentions. The duality of Cassie’s personality is very evident in the film and is highlighted by the costume choices. By day, she’s a sweet girl who works in a coffee shop, her hair in braids, and wearing lots of florals, pastels and shades of pink. By night, she adorns her face in heavy makeup, wears body con dresses and goes out to clubs and enacts her revenge on wrong-doing men.
Her performance is even more elevated by the supporting cast. Bo Burnham’s character, in particular, presents a comedic and hopeful addition to Cassie’s life. The chemistry between Mulligan and Burnham is tangible and has every viewer wishing nothing but the best for them. The romcom montage in the middle of the film to Paris Hilton “Stars are Blind” is one of the most rewatchable and perfectly crafted scenes of the last year.
When the story takes a turn and focuses more on Cassie’s personal plot for revenge on the people who were directly responsible for letting what happened to Nina go unpunished, the film is elevated by a strong ensemble. Separated into chapters, each scene with a member from Cassie’s past is thrilling and very effective. Allison Brie, Connie Britton and Alfred Molina portray characters who were responsible in very different ways for what happened. Through their characters, Emerald Fennell shows the different angles surrounding the issue. From the “innocent” bystander through Brie, to the person in charge of reporting the crime (through Britton), and to the person who was responsible of the legal angle through Molina, every angle shows the viewer how the system is designed to disadvantage women who accuse people of sexual assault. It shows how men are capable of getting away with so much when it comes to their treatment of women. And most importantly, the film serves as a social commentary on how sexual assault accusations often end up as a “he-said-she-said” situation where the men always seem to come out of top.
The film covers just one chapter of Cassie’s life, with a lot of key information left purposely out, leaving it to the viewer’s interpretation. This revenge journey that Cassie has set herself on is a dangerous one. A danger that is reflected in the end of the film. The ending has generated a lot of mixed feelings and has left a fair amount of people angry and disliking the film as a result of it.
[MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD]
I believe your reaction to the ending will depend on how you view and interpret the themes and purpose of the movie. If you hoped for a happy arc of a red-hot revenge story where no matter the cost, Cassie comes out victorious… sorry to disappoint, but you’ll be let down by this ending.
The film serves to expose the hard truths of the way survivors of sexual assault are cast aside, not believed, and see no justice brought upon their abusers. There could have been a very different version of this movie, one where Ryan really is the good guy we desperately wanted him to be. Where Cassie gets her ultimate revenge on Al Monroe and goes on to live happily ever after with Ryan… But that wouldn’t be THIS movie. And I don’t believe it would be as successful a movie. Promising Young Woman thrives in the unexpected. Its marketing is designed to make you believe this is a revenge thriller where the main character goes on a man killing rampage, when in reality it is a story of strength, female friendship, and just trying to do the right thing and holding people accountable for their actions. It wouldn’t be realistic for Cassie to have walked into that room, gotten everything she hoped to get, and then walked out of there scut-free.
In my opinion, the whole film is about how much men can get away with regarding their treatment and behaviour towards women. It touches on how the system is designed for men to get the upper hand and get away with things they shouldn’t. In a he said/she said situation, he will always prevail. Cassie made sure that in her situation, SHE would be the one to come out on top. Justice prevailed.
No matter what you end up thinking of the film itself, it is one that inspires so much important conversation… and I cannot wait for people to get talking about it.