Promising Young Woman review: More than meets the eye
Ivan Radford | On 17, Apr 2021
Director: Emerald Fennell
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Connie Britton, Alison Brie, Jennifer Coolidge, Adam Brody, Chris Lowell
Where to watch Promising Young Woman online in the UK: Sky Cinema / NOW
“What do I do for a living? Maybe that’s too hard. How old am I?” That’s Cassie (Carey Mulligan) at the start of Promising Young Woman, as she turns someone else’s expectations on their head. It is, we soon learn, how she spends her nights: she pretends to be drunk so that a self-styled nice guy will pick her up and try to take advantage of her, only for her to turn the tables on them. That unsettling turning of the tables sets the tone for a darkly entertaining two-hour ride, one in which we’re never allowed to feel entirely sure what will happen next.
From the opening sequence writer-director Emerald Fennell’s grasp of tone is impeccable, careening wildly from funny to furious with the unpredictable force of its protagonist. Carey Mulligan is perfectly cast as the med school student who dropped out several years ago, after losing her best friend, Nina. What becomes clear is that her nocturnal crusade is partly retaliation for what happened, but where you might expect that to become a gory, violent crusade, Promising Young Woman has more surprising plans in mind – plans that remind us, time and again, that things aren’t that simple or straight-forward.
Cassie is the epitome of that complexity. Still living with her parents at the age of 30 and working in a cafe with no desire for a husband, kids or high-flying career, she is at once purposeful and driven and aimlessly adrift – her decisions and behaviour are fuelled by grief as much as rage, and Mulligan’s ability to inhabit all of these things at once makes her not only thrilling to watch but deeply poignant. From her concerned but withdrawn parents (Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown) and their home’s frozen-in-time interior decor to the way she shrinks from former friends, she’s less comfortable in everyday shoes than in her role-playing retribution, and seemingly disregards the (unseen) risks that her nighttime quest involves.
That is, until an erstwhile classmate appears who sweeps her off her feet – and seeing her plans upended by Ryan (played with laconic earnestness by Bo Burnham) makes for an oddly uplifting watch, as Fennell toys with turning the whole film into a romantic comedy. But Cassie’s recovery from trauma and loss is just one strand in a dizzying web of wrong-footing plot threads. While there’s humour from her coworker, Gail (an under-used Laverne Cox), and guilt and remorse from a lawyer (Alfred Molina), there’s also an enjoyably loathsome turn from Alison Brie, a callous display of complicity from a college dean (Connie Britton) and a smartly cast array of purportedly good boys played by everyone from The OC’s Adam Brody to Glow’s Chris Lowell.
The result, fuelled by an ironic jukebox soundtrack and dialogue that crackles with wit reminiscent of Killing Eve (on which Fennell was showrunner for Season 2), is a gripping thriller that contains at its heart a bleak, angry statement about modern society’s treatment of women and rape victims. Capable of shocking with violence even as it shies away from it, Promising Young Woman offers a compromised hint of catharsis, stubbornly resisting to conform to what we think a story of justice should be. That doesn’t mean you’ll agree with everything about the film – but it does mean you’ll be talking about it a lot afterwards. In a society where rapes, assaults and abuse is all too often brushed under the rug, that audacious rug-pull in itself is a striking achievement.
Promising Young Woman is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW, as part of an £11.99 NOW Cinema Membership subscription.