Carey Mulligan brings emotional weight to a woman wreaking her own personal revenge on abusive men

promising young woman

Source: Sundance

‘Promising Young Woman’

Dir/scr: Emerald Fennell. US. 2020. 113min

What begins as a campy feminist revenge story turns more profoundly unsettling in this disturbing debut feature from Killing Eve showrunner and British actress Emerald Fennel. Though the trailer calls it “a delicious new take on revenge,” that’s not entirely accurate. Yes, Promising Young Woman is about vengeance, but it’s far from appetising; on the contrary, what underlines this scathing tale is suffering and fury. 

We can thank Mulligan for helping to bring such emotional weight to Fennell’s weird material

The film is Fennell’s #MeToo cri de coeur—an angry rebuke to a world where women are blamed for their harassment and a man like Brett Kavanaugh can be a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. She intentionally keeps her audience on edge, although the film is tonally unwieldy; something which may prevent Promising Young Woman from being embraced as some kind of new Girl with the Dragon Tattoo when it’s released in the US and UK on April 17.

The film stars Carey Mulligan as Cassie, a 30-year-old woman who once held a promising career as a doctor before a mysterious event derailed her future. Now, she’s living at home with her parents. By day, she works as a barista, trying to close herself off from everyone around her. By night, she orchestrates a ritualistic vendetta against “nice guys” in bars who offer to take her home; while she pretends to be drunk and they try to take advantage of her, she has other plans for them.

Promising Young Woman is tonally all over the map. In between Cassie’s bouts of male punishment, she strikes up a romantic flirtation with Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former medical school colleague, and the film switches to quick-witted rom-com. There’s some genuinely funny repartee between the twosome, and consequently, hints of a potential rosier resolution to the story. But Fennell, too, has other plans. 

Such shifts of mood can feel jarring, and there’s some scenes that feel outright odd—such as the appearance of Alfred Molina as a repentant lawyer or a romantic montage that discerning viewers should probably take with a grain of salt.

Because, for all its seeming embrace of revenge, Cassie’s escapades are ultimately self-destructive, and the film becomes as much about retribution as the difficulty of moving on after trauma. We can thank Mulligan for helping to bring such emotional weight to Fennell’s weird material. She connects Cassie’s strength with her vulnerability; there’s a rawness and pain that belies the anger of her performance.

Fennell nails Cassie’s unhinged and unhealthy state of mind in a key sequence, scored to Wagner’s darkly epic piece “Liebestod” from Tristan and Isolde, when she attacks a jerk’s pickup truck with a crowbar. While audiences might initially enjoy watching her smash the guy’s windshield, the camera pulls back to reveal Cassie as a wounded and solitary individual.

Promising Young Woman builds to a truly shocking climax that delivers Fennell’s themes with a dark and twisted sense of humour—and justice. It’s a clever and unexpected turn in a film full of surprises. And though the end credit music is a song called “Last Laugh,” it doesn’t feel particularly funny, or victorious.

Production company: LuckyChap Entertainment, FilmNation, Focus Features

International sales: Focus/Universal International

Producers: Margot Robbie, Tom Ackerley, Josey McNamara, Ben Browning, Ashley Fox, Emerald Fennell

Production Design: Michael T. Perry

Editing: Frédéric Thoraval

Cinematography: Benjamin Kračun

Music: Anthony Willis

Main cast: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, Connie Britton