Promising Young Woman is a rape-revenge-thriller that has already proved divisive but is a wonderfully clever, darkly funny, stomach-knotting — my stomach may never unknot — exploration of what #notallmen seem to get: it isn’t OK to have sex with a woman who has had a few too many and isn’t in a position to give consent. Unless, of course, she is also out late at night and wearing a short skirt in which case: asking for it. We all know that.
This is written and directed by the extraordinary polymath that is Emerald Fennell, who was head writer for the second series of Killing Eve, has collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber on his forthcoming Cinderella, and is a novelist and actress. (She played Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown; I don’t know if she’s also a black belt at judo but there has to be a chance.) It stars Carey Mulligan as Cassie, a medical school drop-out whose best friend, Nina, committed suicide after she was raped at a college party while other boys looked on, laughing. Cassie now lives with her despairing parents, works in a coffee shop and has an unusual hobby: revenge, served cold and also often.
Every week she goes to a club where she appears to be head-lollingly, flat-out, falling-down drunk. One man might nudge another. ‘Look at that. God almighty, get some dignity sweetheart,’ he might say, while also sensing an opportunity. The man will take her back to his place and just as he’s getting her knickers off she will sit bolt upright, stone-cold sober, and say: ‘What are you doing?’ It’s a shock. It’s stressful. It’s stomach-knotting. If he knows he can’t have sex with her now she’s sober, why did he think he could when she was drunk? But he’s not ‘a rapist’. ‘I’m a nice guy,’ he will remonstrate. ‘Are you?’, she will counter.
No one was ever made accountable for Nina and, a decade on, Cassie’s pain and anger and trauma are embedded. She seeks revenge not just on random, shitty guys, but also on the lawyer (Alfred Molina), who defends accused college boys, and the girlfriend (Alison Brie), who did not stand by Nina, and the dean of the college (Connie Britton), who took no action. (‘Ruin a young man’s life every time an accusation is made? Have him expelled?’)
But then Cassie meets Ryan (Bo Burnham), a paediatric surgeon who seems to be a very, very nice fella. They fall in love indie-rom-com-style with montages and a dance routine down the pharmacy and they’re funny together and sweet and now youare angry. Really? A man comes along to make it all right? This is her salvation? That’s the twist? Actually, no. It is not. Or, to put it another way, the twist has a twist. This is an extremely twisty film. And you won’t be able to predict any of them.
This wrong-foots us in all sorts of ways and is discomforting in all sorts of ways. It is bloodthirsty and furious but its visuals are all stylised high-femme: candy colours, cute nail polish, ditsy floral dresses. The soundtrack is sometimes pop and sometimes ominous horror-movie strings and sometimes what sounds like both, as when Britney Spears’s ‘Toxic’ is slowed right down.
Mulligan’s performance, meanwhile, is intense and fiery and electrifying, even if she’s nowhere near good-looking enough. (Joke, but you’ll have to look it up to understand the history.) The ending has proved especially divisive, particularly due to one near-unbearable scene, but a film may raise the subject of gendered violence and sexual assault without necessarily offering a solution. The patriarchy has been around for 10,000 years and you can’t expect Emerald Fennell to singlehandedly see it off. Unless she can. Perhaps she’ll get round to it next year.
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