Emerald Fennell has had an interesting career, even just within the last couple of years. As an actress, she played Camilla in the most recent season of The Crown and was Virginia Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell in Vita & Virginia. She also wrote most of the second season of Killing Eve. She now makes her debut as a feature film writer-director and what an explosion onto the scene this is. She has assembled a big-name cast, which circulates around the centrifugal force of a typically great Carey Mulligan performance. Fennell has written something bold and original, which pulls no punches and is pretty boundary-pushing, in terms of genre. It doesn’t entirely work, but it’s a risky take on the rape-revenge genre and it is a relief that after several misfires made by men, women are taking on high-profile films that tackle this moment in our culture.
It’s interesting that a British writer/director and star have chosen to set this story in America, about an inciting incident that takes place at an American college, rather than a British university. Perhaps the ‘frat culture’ of American colleges in more well-known, but that’s not to say that British universities don’t have their own problems in this area. Mulligan plays Cassie, a 30 year old medical school drop-out who works at a cafe with her friend Gail (Laverne Cox) and still lives with her parents (played by Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge). At weekends, Cassie goes to bars and clubs alone, pretends to be extremely drunk and when men (including Adam Brody and Christopher Mintz-Plasse) take advantage of this and lure her back to their apartments, she reveals that she is actually sober and teaches them a lesson. One day, one of her former med school friends, Ryan (Bo Burnham) comes to the cafe and asks Cassie on a date. He is now a paediatric surgeon and Cassie gradually does let her guard down and makes the decision to date him. Cassie starts to track down some of their other college friends, including Madison (Alison Brie). The mystery of why Cassie dropped out of med school and why she now targets male predators is gradually revealed.
Fennell dials up the bubblegum, rom-com look of Promising Young Woman, from the pastel colours at the cafe that Cassie works at, to the hair, make-up, costuming and accessories that adorn Mulligan’s character. She assumes the persona of a stereotypical girly-girl – long blonde hair, large earrings, lots of make-up – but this is part of the entrapment. The costume design by Nancy Steiner certainly deserves to be singled out for praise here. The soundtrack of distorted pop covers, combined with Anthony Willis’ orchestral score is also a real highlight of the film.
The film leans into rom-com tropes when Cassie and Ryan start dating – including a public sing-song (to a Paris Hilton track, no less) and a montage of cutesy moments. This is all very deliberate by Fennell to lull you into a false sense of security before upending things in the unhinged finale. Connie Britton has a supporting role as the dean of the college where the pivotal events played out and Alfred Molina cameos as the lawyer who was involved in the case. The scene with Molina is one of the highlights of the film. Alison Brie also gets one great scene – which takes place in a restaurant – where Cassie confronts Madison about her complicity in the incident. Fennell is very much confronting the concept of the “innocent bystander” and those who have a role after the event, in spreading rumours, gossip and lies.
After directing the indie hit Eighth Grade in 2018, it is perhaps surprising to see Bo Burnham return to a fairly large acting part here. He is terrific as Ryan and his chemistry with Mulligan is fantastic. Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge are also great as Cassie’s parents and Brown is especially vulnerable and tender. New Girl’s Max Greenfield and GLOW’s Chris Lowell have an important role to play in the film’s incendiary final act. The casting is a big strength of Promising Young Woman and it’s fantastic to see such a large amount of good actors in what are mostly very small roles. Fennell has gathered the support of a lot of quality people in front and behind the camera to execute her vision, which is extremely encouraging for a first feature from a woman director.
The twists and turns of the plot are perhaps not as unpredictable as Fennell is hoping for, unfortunately. The final third of the film is where the audience will be won or lost – it certainly will not work for everybody. This movie sure ain’t subtle, in its writing and delivery, but it’s refreshing to see Mulligan in a performance that is much larger than she usually goes for. She is, of course, excellent at navigating the different personas that Cassie adopts – from the confident honey-trap who goes out man-hunting, to the much more shy and lonely person who inhabits her home and the coffee shop. Fennell has really gone for it and she sure isn’t here to make the audience feel comfortable. Promising Young Woman is a confident and confrontational feature debut and it will be fascinating to see where Emerald Fennell goes from here.
Directed by: Emerald Fennell
Written by: Emerald Fennell
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Laverne Cox, Clancy Brown