REEL Review – Promising Young Woman (2020)

Director: Emerald Fennell | 1h 53mins | Crime, Drama, Thriller

Still traumatised by a tragic incident in her past, former Med School student Cassandra (Cary Mulligan) exacts her own justice on predatory men who take advantage of drunk women.

2020 has seen a rise in wonderful female representations. Through tender thought-provoking dramas with a contemporary setting, period pieces and even the continuation of Patty Jenkins’ emphatic Wonder Woman. Among these is Emerald Fennell’s unique and bubblegum smacking thriller Promising Young Woman – a film with the sizzling tension of a thriller and enough conviction to make lasting commentary on the abysmal behaviour of men.

The opening scene of Fennell’s thriller is pretty encompassing of the film’s thematic trajectory, as three ‘Wall Street archetype’ guys moan about female coworkers until they spot Cassandra sitting across the room. She’s so drunk that she can barely keep her head up, but it doesn’t stop one of the men (supposedly the nicer of the three) from offering to help her. Once in the taxi the man (played by Adam Brody) begins to push for a trip to his and once there, Cassandra reveals her own predatory plan to expose him for the scumbag he truly is. 

It’s a scene that suggests, much like the whole film does, that all men are bad. Sure, you may meet some that seem nice but even they turn out to be terrible. It’s a theme that drives the film’s plot without really expanding on this instant premise, but a radical opinion doesn’t always mean it’s a bad film. Promising Young Woman is telling a story that at its core, is a tragedy. One that’s all too real in a world we live in and what Cassandra does, is done because she’s justified by a haunting trauma. 

The wonderful aesthetic is closer to comic book style than anything, and while there’s a feeling that the themes struggle to reach a broader debate in among the colours and flash, it certainly gives the film its unique personality. 

As the film reveals information to us about Cassandra’s best friend Nina, a girl who she went to Med School with and eventually dropped out because of, we learn that the vengeance being exacted is the people who violated and tormented Nina until her death. Here we see academic systems, bystanding gossipers and ashamed accomplices all punished in Cassandra’s three (or four) stage plan. This is where the film is really at its strongest, not just focusing on those that committed such a vile assault but expanding it’s commentary onto those who sit idly by while things like this happen. 

There’s an air of tongue and cheek to Fennell’s tone, one that is able to navigate style and humour into such a heavy topic. The sets are plastered in a juvenile candy pink shade (a link to the immaturity that Cassandra is accused of having), the chapters are broken up in bold pastille roman numerals and the final outfit that Cassandra dons is a punk-ish wink to the female standards set by a sexist system. This wonderful aesthetic is closer to comic book style than anything, and while there’s a feeling that the themes struggle to reach a broader debate in among the colours and flash, it certainly gives the film its unique personality. 

Leading the charge as Cassandra is Carey Mulligan, an actress who very often has sensational taste in her roles. While she’s no stranger to roles embedded with feminism (she starred in The Suffragette [2015]), her role as Cassandra may be one of her best. Mulligan plays Cassandra with such command and surface level charm while never losing that bottled up anger and ferocity that fuels the film’s fires. She flutters between sarcasm, rage and sadness like the flick of a switch, and despite having such a great supporting cast alongside her (Bo Burnham is particularly charming and cowardly in equal measures), Mulligan stays front and centre to channel the films theme effectively. 

Promising Young Woman is astonishingly well balanced as a debut feature, it flaunts it’s wildly unique style with zero apology all while in the furious pursuit against misogyny and abuse. To balance such contrast however means the film often sacrifices the chance to go deeper – but even with its flaws the film can hold its head high as a statement against, not just those who commit such awful abuse, but to those who allow it to go unpunished. Important, stylish and often funny – it seems Mulligan can add another film to her list of fantastic career choices. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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