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(Credit: Focus Features)

'Promising Young Woman' review: Emerald Fennell's brilliant genre-melding debut

Promising Young Woman
4.5

First of all, this is definitely not a date movie. 

Part of the charm of Promising Young Woman is the impossibility of placing it in a single, clear category. It has been plausibly described as a thriller, a mystery, a comedy/drama, but it shifts genres so continually, and so smoothly, that none of these properly describe this unconventional story. It begins and ends as a tragic and intense revenge fantasy, but also spends a fair amount of time as a comedy, a psychological study, even a romance; all of them work, and all of them fit in beautifully with the others and support the central theme. 

Carey Mulligan in the lead role completely dominates the film in a brilliant, controlled, many-layered performance, by turning angry, bitter, grieving, confused, touchingly happy, wounded, and vicious, taking the audience along even at the character’s unbalanced moments, and forcing a certain amount of acceptance even of her more indefensible choices. Writer, actress, and novice filmmaker Emerald Fennell has created a harsh, complex, believable character as well as a startling and unpredictable plot. Carey Mulligan plays Cassie (full name Cassandra, significantly the name of the mythical prophetess whose warnings are never believed) who, years earlier, had been the promising young woman of the title. At age 30, she has a very minimal existence, lives with her parents and holds an uninspiring waitress job, but she was once an outstanding medical student with a brilliant career ahead of her. Something terrible happened that made her drop out of school and lose all personal ambition and that traumatic event – and its consequences – is gradually revealed over the course of the film’s first act. 

We first encounter Cassie in an upscale bar where she is alone and extremely drunk. As she explains in a sardonic voice-over narration, such a situation always draws a helpful “nice guy” who offers to help her get home safely. So it does on this occasion, see an apparently well-intentioned young man comes to Cassie’s aid, offering to drive her home, and managing to get her into his apartment, where she is far too drunk to effectively ward off his friendly but persistent advances. At this point, the film takes its first unexpected turn. Cassie is perfectly sober and alert and confronts her supposed rescuer. It turns out this is something she does on a regular basis, compulsively, in reaction to the rape of her close friend and fellow student at university. 

The plotline of Cassie’s vigilante activities is perfectly managed for maximum effect. Even without onscreen violence, Cassie’s confrontations with the men she regards as would-be assailants, and the men’s reactions, are intense and disturbing on many levels. Cassie’s longstanding obsession with revenge is rather creepy in its single-mindedness, as is her indifference to her own safety. Mulligan’s performance brings across Cassie’s fury and contempt in an understated way that is all the more blistering for its calm. Her encounters with a series of predators-turned-prey are unpredictable and intriguing, providing an endless and creative series of excuses and rationalisations from the men she encounters, in a way that manages to avoid being didactic, and is surprisingly funny – as are Cassie’s caustic remarks, breezy resilience, and strikingly irreverent attitude.

The film neatly avoids having its point of view clearly defined. It has elements of feminist rhetoric, but neither men nor women, liberals nor conservatives, are consistently the target, and all are subject to mockery at one point or another. Villains in this film can be among the most likeable and well-intentioned of characters, while supposed friends and allies can be the most damaging and dangerous. The role of threat and victim, friend and enemy, trade places more than once, and real help often comes from unlikely sources. Even Cassie herself is by no means a consistently sympathetic character or even a decidedly good person, and her cold and relentless determination to achieve her ends by virtually any means can be chilling, even as the film insistently presents her as a champion. The essential points are made without falling into the familiar or expected, without humourless preaching, and certainly without falling into predictability; and above all, without ever losing its sharp and perverse sense of humour. 

(Credit: Focus Features)

Just as the film seems to have established itself as a very, very dark comedy, it takes a surprising turn and becomes a romantic comedy – a quirky and slightly ironic one, but also genuinely sweet and charming as well as funny. The film seems headed for a happy ending; a poignant one not unmixed with grief, but essentially happy. However, once again, the film does an about-face as new information, and new events take things in an entirely new and sinister direction. The storyline remains unpredictable and increasingly grim until the conclusion – which is in turn followed by another, even more unhappy conclusion, and yet another surprise twist, in which some characters are destroyed, some vindicated, and some confront justice in one form or another. 

Even minor details enhance the film. Tiny details, like Cassie’s revenge notebook and its echo in occasional screen captions, help sustain the mood. The soundtrack includes selections that add a sarcastic edge to particular scenes, such as a cover of ‘It’s Raining Men’ when Cassie coolly faces down catcalling construction workers; the questionable 1960s pop song ‘He Hit Me (And it Felt Like a Kiss)’; the romantic ballad ‘Something Wonderful’ played over a distinctly gruesome scene; and the film’s finale accompanied, with strange appropriateness, by ‘Angel of the Morning’. 

The cast is also perfect, completely dominated by Carey Mulligan’s Cassie, but enhanced by supporting performances from Bo Burnham as Cassie’s new boyfriend, Alison Brie as a former school friend, Connie Britton as a university dean, and Alfred Molina in a small but significant role as a retired lawyer. Everything comes together to make the film consistently entertaining, and most of the time amusing, even as it blasts us with assorted horrors. As art or as exhortation, it’s a huge success. But it’s absolutely not a good date movie.

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