‘Promising Young Woman’ Review: Dir. Emereld Fennell [Best of 2021]

Operating within the realm of horror adjacent, Promising Young Woman taps into the rape-revenge story and follows Mulligan’s former medical student, Cassandra, as she avenges a vicious sexual assault on her best friend. Set years after the assault itself, Cassie now spends her day working in a coffee shop trying to keep herself under the radar. When night falls however, she morphs into an avenging angel, stalking the local nightclubs and punishing any man that tries to take advantage of her apparent although pretend drunken state. It’s a bleak existence, but one that is working, that is until she encounters a man from her past who inadvertently sets her down a very dark path. 

Promising Young Woman is an incredibly powerful film and is fully deserving of all of the plaudits that it has won; Emerald Fennell is casting a spotlight on some very serious and important topics. Consent is obviously the key point as Fennell uses Cassie’s angel of the night to re-educate the men around her, but the film also highlights the aftereffects of trauma and the impact it has, not only on the victim, but on those that have to witness someone they love in pain. Fennell further uses her film to add some commentary on the unnerving historical trend of sexual assaults on college campuses being swept under the carpet. This is an issue that was recently explored in the lesser seen, but equally relevant, M.F.A (available on Amazon Prime), and one that is desperately in need of further discussion.  

The exploration of the power divide between men and women is a timely one in the wake of the #MeToo movement, and as a female, there is something that is very cathartic about watching the tables get turned. It’s a story that’s been played out before, though mainly within the horror genre complete with rafts of elaborate torture. In Promising Young Woman, Fennell approaches from a more grounded and realistic angle, Cassie using shock tactics, rather than physical pain, to drill desired social norms into the male predators that lurk all around. This arguably more mature slant will hopefully encourage discourse and might help educate some who have been blind to transgressions before. 

Given its subject matter and the context of the film, men are not portrayed in the best light. Even Ryan (Bo Burnham) who is initially established as the refreshing good guy, is later revealed to have a darker side. Some may view the piece, and especially this particular reveal, as being anti-men – all men are scum etc. – but Fennell is instead trying to highlight that everyone could do better at fostering a supportive and respectful dynamic between genders. It is important to note that it isn’t just male characters that are vilified, some of the female contingent are also exposed as enabling exploitative behaviour. These women have either supported the misdeeds of men or align themselves with their way of thinking and therefore Cassie doesn’t spare them her special brand of payback either. Similarly, she isn’t a man hater attacking them regardless of guilt; during her journey she encounters one of her would-be male victims, but changes her approach when she is presented with a genuinely remorseful and reformed character.  

Time must also be taken to discuss the phenomenal job that Carey Mulligan does in the role of Cassie. Given the subversive tone it is a character that could have been portrayed in an extreme and exaggerated way, but Mulligan prefers to keep Cassie more subdued and relatable. The decisions she makes with the role feel intuitive and instinctive, which makes Cassie an on-screen guardian angel for the downtrodden woman. Mulligan’s performance is breathtaking, beautiful, and above everything else, strong. The strength of Mulligan’s performance is backed up by some clever camerawork that reaffirms the idea of Cassie as an avenging angel. Over the course of the film we are treated to a wealth of camera framing that places Cassie in front of something that presents her appearance as angelic. The easiest instance to spot comes via Cassie’s bed. Whenever she sits on her bed, the headband gives the appearance of wings expanded out of her back. Later there’s a scene in front of a painting that creates the impression of a halo hovering above her. These shots are more subtle than they sound, but add so much to character, narrative, and tone. 

Cassie is not a role that comes along for an actress often and Mulligan leapt at the chance for the opportunity to play such a complex and unique character. Very early on it is clear that Cassie is exactly as the title suggests, a promising young woman, with a superior intellect; Mulligan delivers an assured performance that demonstrates this without making Cassie alienating. Her intelligence is formidable, her ability to plan and plot her crusade a testament to this, but never does she become cold and distant like her comparable male counterparts on screen. As much as she pours her grand IQ into her self-made mission, it’s also a tragic tale of society causing her disillusion and therefore wasting her obvious talents by not acting correctly to support, or even believe, genuine victims.  

With such serious issues at play, Fennell still ensures that there is some enjoyment to be had within the piece, it is a film afterall and needs to be accessible. In order to create something that works as both a conduit for entertainment and education Fennell mixes everything up; her use of music and colour all work together to craft a movie whose tone plays more into the arena of dark satirical comedy than preachy depressing drama. There’s a strange fairy-tale affectation to parts of Promising Young Woman that enables it to feel like a cautionary warning to those that watch. Sticking to pinks, pastels, and startling neons, the colour palette is vibrant and eye-catching, swaddled in a sugar-coated rainbow sprinkle aesthetic that hits you in the face and serving to visually brighten up the dark context buried within. This colour palette is also heavily coded female, once more asserting that this is a story about the female experience, told from the perspective of those that have grown up within the constraints of a patriarchal society. 

The costumes – Cassie’s at least – reinforce the fairytale vibe, once again leaning into traditionally overtly feminie colours and styles, with the occasional exception. Fennel mostly sticks to keeping Cassie clad in pretty frilly dresses and billowing blouses to ramp up that femininity. Even when wearing trousers or jeans they tend to be either a “girly” colour, or paired with a cutesy top. All these decisions help portray Cassie as non-threatening, making her assault on the patriarchy all the more powerful. She doesn’t have to dress in a hyper masculine way to perform her task; it is her femininity that is her power and it is fully embraced in every facet imaginable. Costume designer Nancy Steiner also does a stellar job highlighting the duality of Cassie’s lifestyle. The difference between Cassie’s day and night attire is exactly that. The choices of clothing couldn’t be more different, the textures, colours and cuts working to give Mulligan the appearance of two separate women; achieving the ultimate impression of a superheroes costume. 

The soundtrack bridges the tonal discord blending bubble-gum pop with a nerve jangling set of strings. As one would expect the vocalists are almost exclusively female and includes music from icons such as The Spice Girls, Britney Spears, and even Paris Hilton in one of the more light-hearted moments in the film. These are artists that are seen by the masses as being a bit cheesy and disposable, Fennell though reclaims them as the female anthems that many of them are and offers new interpretations of several iconic songs that reinvents them for modern listeners. 

Featuring an intricately woven web of people, opinions, ideals, and values, Fennell balances them all of these aspects perfectly to tell a no-holds-barred story that ensures pause for thought. It pays respect to the long-standing history of the rape-revenge story, but shifts it from the expected horror environment to a more socio-political one. Fennell forgoes the malice, spite and anguish of such films, channelling their essence into a more palatable and accessible story but retains its own distinctive dark beating heart.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Promising Young Woman is out to own now.

This review first appeared on THN.