Promising Young Woman is the directorial debut of actress and writer Emerald Fennell, who you may mostly know for spearheading the second season of BBC‘s hit show Killing Eve, or perhaps for playing Camilla in the latest offerings of The Crown. Either way, Fennell has fully established herself as a writer/director to watch out for with her stunning debut feature which stars Carey Mulligan as Cassie Thomas, the titular young woman with promise who lives a secret nighttime double-life and is absolutely not what she appears to be. For several reasons, I’m going to leave that as enough of a plot summary as any more would risk revealing too much and this is one movie that you should experience with as little prior knowledge as possible.
There are many things that impressed me with this movie and it’s hard to know where to start. It’s such a fresh movie experience that anything I say about it risks not doing it justice. My mind is simply overflowing with praise for this movie, so I’ll try to dissect it as best I can without giving too much away.
Emerald Fennell achieves something in this movie that was quite concerning going into it; she manages to stay atop a razor-sharp tone with only a handful of minor wobbles (notably things that I only realised after seeing it, none of which affected my viewing experience) either side. The movie is undoubtedly dark in theme and plot, but it isn’t overwhelmingly bleak. It actually has a self-referentially sadistic wit that propels the action throughout and keeps everything feeling unique. It’s something I’ve seldom seen achieved so well on film, especially from someone’s debut feature. Fennell’s script is a breath of fresh air in this genre as its spin of a female revenge thriller is so well-balanced with its social relevance and the comedic stylings of its cast that it becomes a whole new animal, something as exciting as it is deadly. The script isn’t one of those that has some quiet affectations that may reference society’s views on rape culture. It takes those concepts, puts them in one of those centrifuges that astronauts use to practice being space-bound, and delivers them with a wickedly-sharp self-awareness that should alienate its audience. Instead, it’s intelligent enough to be confrontational which is something very bold that other films of its ilk failed to achieve.
A lot of the heavy lifting is anchored by a perfect casting choice in Carey Mulligan. Margot Robbie, who produced the film, said she found it difficult not to star in it herself but championed Mulligan for the role as it’s something that’s very outside of what we’ve seen her do before. And she’s completely correct. Mulligan has had one of the most exciting career journeys to have followed, from her breakout smash in An Education to more minor yet effective roles in Drive and Inside Llewyn Davis. Mulligan truly comes alive in Promising Young Woman, in what is perhaps her best performance to date. Her magnetism is electric and it’s only matched by her versatility. She handles comedy, drama, thriller, and even some horror elements all in one role and it’s beyond exciting to see. She brings a great deal of humanity to the role of Cassie, whereas a lesser actress may have just presented the character rather than embodied her. Mulligan’s silky physicality and complete control of her voice only help her more in shaping Cassie as more than a symbol of a movement. She’s a human being who makes mistakes, but also has a lot of pain hidden behind her devilish grins. I’m personally championing Mulligan for an Oscar nomination as I believe she’s truly worthy of her second (although her second should have come for Paul Dano’s Wildlife) and seeing her be recognised for stepping outside of her wheelhouse would be a dream come true.
There are a lot of notable names to round out the supporting cast and good work is done by everyone. Alison Brie has a few really effective scenes, Jennifer Coolidge does some great work that’s a little different for her, but out of the supporting cast I was very shocked and pleased by the work Alfred Molina does in his limited screen time. He truly makes the most of his moments that were some of the moments I was thinking about the most once the film had finished. Bo Burnham feels very much like Bo Burnham in the film, so it’s really up to you whether that’s a compliment or a criticism. I was very charmed by him at first though, as the film progresses, I became less and less impressed by what he was bringing to the screen. He’s not miscast or anything, I just preferred his performance earlier in the film as I felt that it was more where his talents lay.
The way the film progresses is going to be a source of contention for many and the thing that truly makes this film as divisive as it was bound to be. It’s not overtly political in the way another film may be, but a film with a message like Promising Young Woman is inevitably going to draw fire for how it handles its narrative. The final twenty minutes or so caught me off guard; it really wasn’t what I was expecting to happen and I was very ready to criticise it in the moment. Then I stopped and realise that I actually really liked that it didn’t end the way I’d predicted. Fennell’s proclivity for subverting expectations with her garish sensibilities continues to impress me and I’m very much down for any future projects she’s planning. Stylistically, there’s a great deal to love in this movie; Fennell’s use of colouring and intricacy in just about every aspect of the design really accentuates the tone and feel of how it progresses. As good as Fennell’s script is for this film, her direction is more than a match for it, as impressive a debut as one can find.
Promising Young Woman is impressive, yes, it’s also something that’s even more difficult to come by these days; it’s genuinely something I haven’t seen before. Original films come and go all the time and they all have their inspirations, but Fennell has crafted something so tonally and visually distinctive that it’s hard to make such comparisons as they would only serve to damage the idiosyncrasies that Fennell deals in. It’s also these brilliant moments of distinction that make Mulligan’s job a harder sell, but she rises to the challenge and then some.
Once this movie rolls out to the general public, it’s going to cause a lot of conversation but personally I’m looking forward to seeing how people feel about it. Fennell has a created a movie that forces us to reflect on what we saw and how we can apply its themes to reality in order to improve what we do and how we act. She never cajoles the viewer, never clustering us into a corner while screaming our mistakes at us; she lets her finely-crafted narrative do the work for her and that is the sign of a brilliant filmmaker.
Promising Young Woman is an essential piece of filmmaking, one that is not only timely and socially stirring, but also a dynamic piece of cinema that transcends what is expected of it. Thanks to Emerald Fennell’s exemplary script and Carey Mulligan’s boundary-pushing turn in an important role for women, Promising Young Woman is going to cause a lot of conversation and undoubtedly become a movie that lives on, becoming another fascinating entry into the annals of feminist cinema.
Promising Young Woman hits U.S. cinemas on Christmas Day and will release in Europe in February 2021.