By Emily Murray
Very few films have impacted on me in the way Emerald Fennell’s masterful directorial debut Promising Young Woman did. Since I first saw the candy-coated devastating portrait of grief a couple of months ago, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.
It struck such a chord it’s made writing this review pretty difficult. I’ve scrubbed out numerous notes as I’ve grappled with attempting to find the right words that not only articulate how I feel about this film, but ones that will do justice to it.
The niggling anxiety that lingers in my mind constantly tells me that it’s an impossible task, but I would have learnt nothing from the movie if I didn’t put my voice out there facing my fears, although with less brashness than Carey Mulligan’s Cassie.
Part of the reason Promising Young Woman left me absolutely stunned was because it was in no way the film I expected it to be – which is a good thing! It’s marketing sets it up as a feminist revenge story with a darkly comedic edge, and whilst it is indeed in parts this, Promising Young Woman stands out within its genre to become something rather special.
Yes, Cassie is a wickedly smart lone woman who is seeking revenge, wanting to right the wrongs from the past – but what sets her apart from other protagonists are her tactics. Rather than violently slaying those who were a part of causing that harm like Uma Thurman’s iconic Bride does in Kill Bill, Cassie instead goes about her plan of vengeance in a very different way.
I don’t want to spoil anything for those who are yet to see the film as it’s definitely best going into Promising Young Woman unprepared, but let’s just say it never once stops subverting expectations, and it’s all the better for it. Writer/director Fennell isn’t interested in seeing justice being done with an eye for an eye style, she’s much more concerned with painting a portrait of grief.
Cassie’s mission is driven by the overwhelming grief she feels, an emotion that is completely consuming her. Instead of burying that grief deep down inside her or properly processing it, Cassie lets it unleash like a monster, making her reckless with no regard for her own safety. She doesn’t care if she survives, Cassie doesn’t act like someone who wants to live. Her grief desires to be heard and it’s completely taken over.
Letting this chaotic grief dictate events allows Fennell to pull the story in all sorts of directions, with unexpected turns at every corner that keep audiences at the very edge of their seats. It’s clear that the remarkable Mulligan completely understands Cassie, and so she just soars delivering the best performance of her fantastic career to date. The devastating character study pulls us in because Mulligan and Fennell ensure that Cassie feels very real, allowing audiences to have an instant connection with her.
This realism is another thing that sets Promising Young Woman apart from similar films – although I’d actually argue there is nothing quite like it. Fennell’s aim here isn’t to empower women with an uplifting message about how we can smash the patriarchy, instead the film understands the reality of the world.
And sadly the truth is that women aren’t too powerful. It’s unlikely Cassie would come out on top in a physical fight with a man. Even more importantly, in the real world the vast majority of sexual assault victims aren’t listened to, and don’t receive their justice. Which is exactly the case in Promising Young Woman too as it tackles all this with bold honesty, leading to a climax which has proven to be divisive, but in my eyes is perfection.
This does mean it is rather bleak, but it’s also the reason me and so many others have felt seen by this film. The candidness Promising Young Woman displays is rare in cinema, and it should be applauded for taking such daring risks.
Crucially though it never feels preachy, partly in thanks to the fact all of this is wrapped up neatly in an entertaining pulpy style, with a pretty bow on top for a final flourish. With the story playing out like a top class thriller it is incredibly gripping, whilst a witty script delivers some much needed comic relief.
A brilliant supporting cast which includes the ever talented Bo Burnham and the wonderful Laverne Cox help provide these brighter moments – the fun Stars Are Blind scene is certainly a stand-out and one I am desperate to recreate in my local pharmacy. However, the story never allows us to get too comfortable as we are continually warned to be ‘careful how you go’.
The colourful aesthetics, the cute costumes, and the banging pop soundtrack are disarming, but they are meant to be as Fennell weaponises every single element of her film. Not only does all this hide the darkness that lies within, but it’s also Fennell making a statement about how society regularly doesn’t take a feminine woman seriously. Cassie listens to Paris Hilton, paints her nails pretty pastel colours, and has an adorably floral wardrobe. This means no one sees her coming, like we don’t see the truth of Promising Young Woman coming thanks to its sweet exterior.
Although it won’t be for everyone, it’s groundbreaking nature makes Promising Young Woman a must see for all and a film that will be discussed for years to come. It’s very rare to come out of a movie feeling like it was made just for you, but that’s how I feel about Fennell’s audacious and emotional directorial debut. It has me in its vice and it’s never letting me go, nor do I ever want it to.
Promising Young Woman is available on Sky Cinema now