When a film’s screenplay wins an Oscar, a Bafta and The Writer’s Guild award, it comes with certain expectations. Luckily writer and director Emerald Fennell does not disappoint with this stunning exploration of grief, anger, guilt and revenge. Seen through the eyes of a gifted medical school dropout seeking retribution for the gang rape of a dear friend many years ago, ’Promising Young Woman’ expertly portrays the fearful maze through which women have to navigate the world in a way men never will.
I have yet to see Carey Mulligan give anything other than a stellar performance. I simply adore her. Her on-screen presence as an ice-cold sociopath is up there with her finest work. Which in my eyes was in the David Hare play ‘Skylight’ with Bill Nighy. Mind-blowing stuff. I digress, forgive me. Back to the film. Cassie works a minimum wage job and lives at home with her frustrated parents. Although the title is a direct reference in my eyes, an underlying theme here is ambition, and how life’s events can alter what we may want and how certain goals may lose their meaning. Everyone around her sees the promising young woman and appears frustrated at her lack of ambition or drive, and there is much ambiguity as to whether or not said people are aware of the reasons why.
In fact, ambiguity is another hidden theme. Cassie spends her evenings pretending to be drunk and goes home with various men, only to sober up immediately when they try and take advantage of her inebriated state. The power shift in the room each time it happens is palpable. Predator turns to prey in a heartbeat. But what happens next is never shown. Like many great films, what is left to the imagination is far more interesting than graphic depiction. If you can work out the colour codes in her secret diary, do tell. The ambiguity of the records she keeps is a very clever little trick. I have a theory I would be more than happy to share with you if you bump into me at Caffe Cordina with my pooch. Do ask.
Visually, ‘Promising Young Woman’ is a treat. In fact, costume designer Nancy Steiner also won an award for her work. There are hints of Lars Von Triers in the pacing, and certainly in the use of chapter headings, which lend the film an art-house air at times as opposed to mainstream Hollywood fodder. The coffee shop Cassie works in, her family home, her constantly changing appearance all have a slightly menacing feel. And you know music is a key factor for me when reviewing films for all you lovely people, so here is my two penneth. You will never be able to listen to the soundtrack to “The King and I” in the same way again, ever. Sorry musical fans. I do have one small grievance, however. At times the score tries slightly too hard. As the genius that is Stanley Kubrick once said, “The correct use of music, and this includes the non-use of music, is one of the great weapons that the film-maker has at his disposal”. That said, it does not detract from what I feel to be a must-see film.
My final thoughts as the credits rolled were what a sad state of affairs we are in that in twenty-twenty-one a film like this needs to be made. One would hope that themes of male entitlement, slut-shaming and female safety would be a thing of the past. Sadly this film is as prescient today as it would have been in the nineteen fifties, and that to me is the most shocking aspect of all.
Promising Young Woman is available to rent or buy now at Amazon Prime.