Promising Young Woman
A bold and expertly executed exploration of sexual assault and predator culture
Previously taboo or tough subjects such as race, homosexuality, and the female experience were hardly explored in film, or done so in timid or in underground indies. Recently there has been a better reckoning of these issues in mainstream Hollywood, diversifying their casts and crews to better represent the makeup of viewers and the world. However, the subject of sexual harassment, rape, and the sexual predator culture is still left largely untouched not only in cinema, but in our world culture as well. The #metoo movement helped bring about certain conversations about the ubiquity of these horrid experiences, but it is still only tiniest effort in reckoning with the sexual abuse that women are subjected to. First-time director Emerald Fennell has brough her bold vision on the subject with the groundbreaking Promising Young Woman (2020).
Promising Young Woman is the story of Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) a young woman who pretends to be drunk and helpless in bars and clubs, attracting men who appear to have good intentions only to start taking advantage of her when they see how helpless and clueless she appears. That is when Cassandra turns on them and soberly frightens them, exposing their predatory behavior to themselves. A tragedy in Cassandra’s past has led her into this particular vendetta against predators, she’s dropped out of medical school, works at a coffee shop, and lives with her parents, with her luring scheme as her only motivation in her life.
Fennell has been slowly breaking out as a name both on and off screen. She might be better known to fans of The Crown () where she plays Camilla Parker Bowles, but her work behind the camera has been impressive as far as well, being a writer for Killing Eve (). Promising Young Woman is written, produced, and directed by her, being her feature directing debut. Fennell certainly brings a lot of the same dark humor from Killing Eve and there was a certain air of the strong and alluring sociopath Villanelle from Killing Eve in Cassandra. Even if Promising Young Woman had been a misguided failure, I would have applauded Fennell for tackling such an issue that many filmmakers are still afraid of approaching; however, Promising Young Woman proved to be a revelatory experience.
Promising Young Woman presents and deals with sexual assault in a much more complex way than other films have presented it in the past. The Jodi Foster film The Accused (), made much headway regarding how it presented consent and assault, but it presented its abusers as nearly maniacally evil. Promising Young Woman reveals that many of the men that assault women, don’t appear to be bad people. In fact, many of them appear to be nice guys trying to help Cassandra out at first, only to start to take advantage of her afterwards. Much of the actions that you see the men start to perform on Cassandra have been long characterized as “harmless” and something women “overreact” to. However, Fennell fabulously films these scenes so that you realize the disturbing and exploitative act that is occurring. In order to further illustrate the fear of how sexual assault could come from a seeming nice and “normal” guy, Fennell smartly casts many likeable actors and comedians in the roles of the abusers such as Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Adam Brody, Sam Richardson, Max Greenfield, and Chris Lowell. This lends an eye of trusting these characters only to be horrified and betrayed when we see what they’re capable of. This casting decision also illustrates how sexual abusers are not always serial rapists out of an Law & Order () episode, but can have perfect resumes and social lives, yet still be capable and responsible of such a crime.
Fennell also brings the issue of the placation that the subject of sexual assault can still receive from many people. Exploring the reasoning behind such actions, Fennell argues that this is due to a lack of empathy on part of the obstructors. This is smartly overturned when such characters are placed in a similar situation themselves, where they feel the burden of sexual assault personally in a variety of ways. This role-playing helps bring up the question in viewers’ minds: of how easy it might be to judge things regarding “he said, she said” and not realizing the true gravity of assault. In fact, the film indirectly makes reference to how much of society continues to reject the notion of digging too deep into sexual assault accusations. There seems to be a fear in companies, schools, and institutions that if one were to investigate each sexual assault allegation, too many men (and undoubtedly some women) would be completely exiled and punished. Yet as Promising Young Woman symbolically prods: why should that be an excuse from such a crime? Many excuses of sexual assault are “they were kids” “you can’t let one night define his life” “haven’t you ever made a mistake?” these are all intentionally echoed by many in Promising Young Woman and the film makes its frustration evident. Why are these always the responses to sexual assault allegations and are never heard with murder or kidnapping? Clearly it is because women are still not taken as seriously or, tragically, seen as valuable to society in order to warrant justice for the like.
Thankfully, Fennell gives us a heroine to root for in the film. However, Cassandra is a complex character who is not always easy to like. It was one of the reasons that made me admire the character work all the more. It would have been too bland if Cassandra was a perfect person seeking justice a la superhero. Mulligan perfectly encapsulates a sense of indifference and bent vengeance in her character that makes her unlike any of the characters she has been playing in her career. Up until now, much of Mulligan’s work had an understated intensity to them, in Promising Young Woman she seems to step out of her comfort zone, playing deliciously against her type. She was particularly very adept with the dark humor moments, which can be ‘make or break’ for many performers. I was pleased with how she played off of Bo Burnam, who is quite solid in the role of Cassandra’s genuine love interest. Their chemistry seemed to contrast uncomfortably with the more serious subject matter, so that viewers are left with the contrast of the two ways heterosexual relationships have been narrowed down to in Western society. Fennell’s casting of Mulligan also helps give viewers an idea of the drastic change that Cassandra has undergone and has suffered because of her particular tragedy; playing with the external fame of Mulligan’s previous delicate performances with the darkness of this narrative.
As a director Fennell expertly crafts the visual language of her film, using static shots as much as she can, rooting her audience to the spot so that we are equally trapped in these sexual assaults just as the victim. There is also a playful use of symmetry and pastel colors. I took this to be a sly statement on the criticism that many assault deniers throw at women for “dressing provocatively” or “getting too drunk,” the visual flourish and the insanely fun soundtrack give off the sense of how a woman should be able to act and look any way she wants. Thus, the colorful and humorous aura around Promising Young Woman clash with the invasion that the sexual assault subject matter cause, giving a greater sense of the unnaturalness, confusion, and hurt that such a trauma can bring.
Narratively Fennell crafts her first two acts relying on the novelty of exploring its subject and the creative strategies that Cassandra employs. However, after a while I was beginning to wonder where the film was going, and how it was going to make its particular point. But then the third act arrived. I have never been more surprised, devastated, or cheered with a finale in years. The film brings about certain twists that fit with both the dramatic exigencies that the film has as well as pushing forward its theme and messages to the fore. The surprising conclusion left me literally shaking in my sofa. I have to confess I’m even shaking now as I remember and write this review. The film doesn’t leave you with a bad feeling when the credits roll, you feel satisfied with its conclusion, presentation, and execution, but you’re left slightly disturbed and rooted to the spot. I appreciated that Fennell didn’t wrap things up too nicely in the finale, leaving the certain discomfort as a reminder to viewers that these aspects of sexual assault should continue to disturb us as they are very much continuously present in our society.
In the end, Promising Young Woman proves to be a very impactful film. It is an incredibly bold foray into the subject of sexual assault, and it is executed in an expert way using style and narrative to bring about its message regarding the complexities and contradictions in these situations. The expert writing, directing, and the lead performance – a career best from Mulligan – make this a must watch for every human being. Hopefully once watched it will bring about more necessary conversations and the requirement that we continue exploring this very untouched subject in film and our society at large.