Promising Young Woman: Fennell’s Revenge Thriller–Oscar Card for Carey Mulligan?

Emerald Fennell, the gifted British writer (showrunner of Killing Eve) and actor (The Crown this season), makes an impressive feature directing debut with Promising Young Woman.

Focus Features: Carey Mulligan 

Grade: B (***1/2* out of *****)

The Premise:

The tale’s heroine, Cassie Thomas, is a woman about 30, who lives in Ohio with her parents, and works as a waitress in a coffee shop. Years earlier, she was in medical school. However, after her best friend Nina Fisher was raped by their classmate Al Monroe, and the school and legal system failed her, Nina and Cassie dropped out.  It’s implied that Nina eventually committed suicide.

Changing her lifestyle, Cassie goes to clubs and feigns drunkenness to get a man to take her home. She waits for them to take advantage of her, only to reveal her sobriety.

“I wanted to make a revenge movie that felt like it was from the point of view of a real woman that had both the deliciousness of the genre as well as the reality of what vengeance is and what grief is,” Fennell said.

It all started with a specific visual image. A young woman is lying in a bed, seemingly drunk, as a man starts removing her clothes without her permission. Slurring her words, the woman asks the guy what he’s doing, but he doesn’t respond. So she waits and then asks him again — this time revealing that she’s stone-cold sober, which shocks the man.

The scene quickly became a springboard for Fennell’s feature debut, which follows a med-school dropout named Cassandra who pretends to be wasted at bars, only to flip the power dynamic on the men who take her home and try to take advantage of her.

Boldly provocative, Promising Young Woman has been in the works for half a decade, long before the #MeToo rape movement and the arrests of high-level execs and directors accused of sexual assault and violence.  But its theatrical release this year (after premiering at the Sundance Film Fest in 2019) could not have been timelier–and more significant.

It was that initial scene, which serves as the movie’s cold open, that ultimately drew actor Carey Mulligan to the Focus Features project. “I’d never read anything like it,” says Mulligan, whose litmus test for whether or not she should take a role is if she could bear seeing someone else play it. “It would have just absolutely killed me for anyone else to do this,” she adds.

Mulligan was Fennell’s first choice for the role because she felt like the actress could ground the character, a woman who is attempting to avenge her best friend’s sexual assault.

“I was worried in the beginning that there was a way of playing Cassandra that was all of the words that I think get stuck on female characters, like ’empowering’ and ‘kick-ass’ and ‘whip smart,'” says Fennell. “These words can be good in lots of ways but they’re also quite reductive and sort of oppressive in a lot of ways because I’ve certainly never used those words to describe real women that I know.”

The film shot over the course of 23 days in Los Angeles, which Fennell disguised as a generic town by hiding the palm trees and any particular landmarks. (Set in anonymous town is one of the film’s weaknesses, in my view).  She made sure to foster a playful, fun atmosphere on set so that the actors would feel comfortable when they had to delve into more serious matters. For the bar scenes and their aftermath, she’d tell the male actors to think of themselves as the leading men. “What makes it so horrifying is how earnest they are,” she says. “They truly believe they are in a rom-com.”

Though Mulligan was tasked with several difficult scenes, one of the most challenging for her was to dance and sing along to Paris Hilton’s ‘Stars Are Blind’ in a pharmacy with her co-star Bo Burnham. “I was like, ‘Oh no,'” says Mulligan, who jokes that she has PTSD every time she hears the song now. “But I love working with directors like Emerald who will push me.”

The movie is not realistic by any standards–it’s more like “what if…”.  However, the text takes its protagonist–and viewers–into a wild, raucous ride, which is always engaging and entertaining.

Fennel’s construction of Cassie’s personality is problematic. At first, she comes across as a woman who is incapable or unable to kindle a genuine romance with any man, not even a seemingly decent guy from her medical school days (nicely played by Bo Burnham). In the course of the tale, she becomes obsessed with what she perceives as her life mission: a self-sacrificing “angel of revenge.”

In its shifting tone, the movie combines, though not always successfully, anger, outrage, black comedy, and ideological messages about the deeply ingrained sexism that prevails in our culture, both explicitly and implicitly. It raises the question of the responsibility of enablers and bystanders of such misconduct as rape.  What should you do if you yourself is not engaged directly in assault, but is invited to watch and witness rape, just for the fun of it. (The climactic scene is set at a bachelor party, a popular male ritual, which often encourages such behavior).

It is significant that male targets are highly educated, professionally successful men, some already married with families of their own, who on the surface seem to be nice and polite.

The performance of Carey Mulligan has garnered critical acclaim, earning, for instance, the Best Actress kudo from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.

Emerald Fennell has won the Best Original Screenplay from the above group and other associations, and likely will be nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar.
Mulligan has been previously nominated for the Best Actress Oscar in 2009 for An Education.

Carey Mulligan as Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas
Bo Burnham as Ryan Cooper
Alison Brie as Madison McPhee
Clancy Brown as Stanley Thomas
Jennifer Coolidge as Susan Thomas
Laverne Cox as Gail
Chris Lowell as Alexander “Al” Monroe
Connie Britton as Dean Elizabeth Walker
Adam Brody as Jerry
Max Greenfield as Joe Macklemore III
Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Neil
Sam Richardson as Paul
Alfred Molina as Jordan Green
Molly Shannon as Mrs. Fisher
Steve Monroe as Detective Lincoln Waller
Angela Zhou as Todd
Francisca Estevez as Amber
Austin Talynn Carpenter as Anastasia, Al’s fiance
Emerald Fennell as Host of Blowjob Lips Make-up Video Tutorial


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