Promising Young Woman

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A #MeToo-fuelled drama produced by Margot Robbie’s LuckyChap company, starring Carey Mulligan and directed and written by Killing Eve’s Emerald Fennell. Promising Young Woman is full of promising young women but recently gained extra notoriety because a Variety review of the film apparently suggested that Carey Mulligan wasn’t quite hot enough to pull off the role of vengeful temptress luring drunk men to their fate.

That comment was actually about Mulligan’s performance rather than her looks. But the story now has grown its own legs. Either way, an attractive young woman who is not hot enough to tempt a heterosexual man wearing several pairs of beer goggles. Pause to think about that. And while thinking, remember that adage coined by the comic Lenny Bruce: “Men will fuck mud.” There is no “not hot enough” about it.

All that to one side – and it is a total sideshow – Mulligan plays the medical-school dropout now working at a coffee shop. We first meet her apparently bombed out of her skull in a bar. Three dudes break off their sexist banter when they notice her. One of them goes over to see if she’s OK, discovers she isn’t and then helps her get on her way… back to his place. It doesn’t quite go as the would-be privateer had hoped. At the moment when he’s trying to lower the panties of his drunken prey, Cassandra snaps out of her drunken fug, fixes him with a cold hard eye… and the action cuts away tantalisingly.

Being an Oxford University graduate, writer Emerald Fennell understands the implication of naming her heroine Cassandra – the figure in Greek mythology who speaks truth, no matter how unpalatable. The truth in Promising Young Woman is that men are generally assholes. Cassie is there to deliver the message.

More specifically she’s on a revenge jag, exacting payback from a specific group of assholes from her med school days, who got the authorities to collude with their bullshit fiction when a night of consensual/non-consensual (delete according to privilege) sex went wrong.

One possible exception to the men-assholes rule is Ryan (Bo Burnham), an old acquaintance of Cassie’s who strays into her coffee shop one day. Verbal jousting ensues, she spits in his coffee, and the meet-cute rules of Hollywood rom-com swing into play.

Cassie looking cute
Setting up the honey trap

At first Mulligan comes across like something out of one of those Charlize Theron movies where she’s not only physically super-capable but also has a weapons-grade mouth that can neutralise testosterone. As things progress, and Cassie starts to work her way towards the source of her friend Nina’s humiliation, more of Cassie’s character is revealed and she morphs from Charlize-in-waiting to a more tragic figure.

Structurally, this is Killing Eve – smart dialogue followed by an elaborate kill. Fennell the writer toys with us by playing peek-a-boo with genre conventions. Is this a rom-com? A thriller? A revenge drama? One of the achievements of this film is that it does genuinely blindside.

However, the need not to give the game away means Fennell struggles laying out a clear dramatic throughline. There wasn’t one in Killing Eve either, but that could fall back on the distractions of the extravagantly florid anti-heroine Villanelle – never mind what’s going on (or, more precisely, what’s not going on) over there, look over here, where I’m playing whackamole with human beings!

On the upside, there are a plenty of brittle, diamond-sharp scenes, which come in two different flavours – smart, funny stuff between Cassie and Ryan, smart and unpleasant stuff between Cassie and most of the other men in the movie.

This is the feature debut for Fennell the director. Her particular visual trick, not overused but powerful, is every now and again to suddenly switch from objective to subjective camera. When it happens it’s just for an instant and then it’s back to objective camera, but the effect is head-swivellingly re-orienting.

We never meet Nina, the actual victim of the asshole guys, just Cassie. And just when the sympathetic avenging angel routine starts to lose its glamour, Fennell hits us with two neat reveals – the first is shocker, the second incredibly satisfying – and Promising Young Woman concludes with a ta-daa that makes you wonder what this promising young woman will come up with next.

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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