Editor’s Note: Michael Young, who debuted in these pages with critiques of all five of the 2020 Oscar-nominated feature-length documentaries, will continue to review “movies with a conscience” for the Sun as they become available through non-theatrical distribution channels. “Nomadland” may have taken the 2020 Oscar for Best Picture, but the also-ran movie discussed here is perhaps the more intriguing film. The Academy seems to have acknowledged that fact by awarding “Promising Young Woman” a 2020 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
The first scene Emerald Fennell, the director and writer of “Promising Young Woman, imagined when drafting her screenplay was of a drunken young woman, sprawled on a bed. She is having difficulty keeping her head up while a man is attempting to remove her panties. Slurring her words, the woman asks: “What are you doing?” The man is unfazed.
A few moments later, with a sure voice and a stone-cold sober tone, she asks again: “What are you doing?” This time, the man is completely taken aback. His victim, it turns out, had never been drunk. Having been caught and thwarted from committing his intended assault, he hasn’t the faintest idea of what to do or say.
This scene opens “Promising Young Woman,” one the most intriguing thrillers I have seen in a long time. But this movie it is much more layered than that. Genre-shifting from crime mystery to romantic comedy to revenge story, it offers up, in the end, a biting and incisive commentary on the culture of male privilege that enables and excuses sexual assault.
Yes, I’m going to go there. . . . This is a movie that men, especially, need to see—because it does such a terrific job of exposing the series of false assumptions that men use to justify their callous and often criminal sexual pursuits. The argument, so often made, is that men, intent on satisfying their primal urges, never really understand that a woman didn’t give consent. They tell themselves that the woman never said “no,” or that “no” really meant “maybe.”
The charade begins, as the movies does, when a “promising young man” suggest to a woman at a bar who has obviously had too many drinks that they leave together. But instead of finding her an Uber, he offers to escort her home—that’s the right thing, right? Curiously, they don’t end up at her home, but at his place, where he suggests that she come up for one last drink.
Some version of this scene plays out every single Friday and Saturday night, around the world. The most common rapes aren’t the violent kind committed by a stranger. They’re acquaintance rapes, such as befell Nina, the best friend of Cassandra Thomas (Carey Mulligan), the cunning heroine of “Promising Young Woman.” Exacting retribution for this crime and its fatal impact drives the initially inexplicable actions of Nina’s avenging angel, Cassie.
Yet the movie is genuinely fun! Emerald Fennell is an unknown to me, mostly, I guess, because I don’t watch much TV. Apparently, her most famous acting role is as Camilla Parker Bowles in the Netflix original series “The Crown.” She has also written several episodes of “Killing Eve,” a TV series considered something of a precursor to this movie. This is Fennell’s debut as a director/writer of a feature film, and she has scored a knockout in bringing to the genre of rape/revenge movies a feminist perspective that is needed, refreshing and entertaining.
“Promising Young Woman” is rated R, but that is due to strong language, maybe some drug usage and one extremely disturbing scene. There is some blood—or is that ketchup from a hot dog?—but the violence is not in your face. Rather than splashed against the camera lens, it is left to imagination, stirred by Carrie’s meticulous recording of red marks in a diary.
Sections of the film have a feeling of bubblegum innocence, attributable in part to the color palette of many of the sets and costumes, which is like that of a clown—reds, yes, but also pinks, blues and greens. The music choices are near-perfect, especially the female pop culture anthems like Paris Hilton’s “Stars are Blind,” lip-synced by Carrie and her new boyfriend; and Britney Spear’s ‘Toxic,” orchestrated in an effectively predictive way, late in the movie.
The movie’s tonal shifts are as agile as they are surprising. The unsettling opening makes us struggle to understand Cassie’s mysterious motivations. As her targets become more obviously inept, we find ourselves laughing with Cassie, the sophisticated comic. The middle sequence of the film evolves into a romantic comedy, suggesting that Cassie might be able to overcome her darkest feelings and find happiness. And, then, Fennell (and editor Frederic Thoravel) move to the other end of the emotional spectrum by exposing the movie’s underlying identity as a twisted thriller. Now we’re on the edge of our seats, unwilling to hit pause for popcorn. And unable to stop thinking about the movie’s unexpected ending and message for days afterwards.
And how ‘bout the character, Cassie! Carey Mulligan is not exactly a world-famous actress. She has played several roles admirably: Jenny Mellor in “An Education” (for which she received a 2009 Oscar nomination for Best Actress); Daisy Buchanan in “The Great Gatsby” (2013); and Maud Watts in “Suffragette” (2015). But her performances have always been somewhat underappreciated. Until this one . . . .
I’ve read that some critics have suggested that Margot Robbie would have been a better choice for Cassie, but they are dead wrong. This is not a “front-and-center” role. Instead, it required an actress capable of projecting incredible restraint and intellect—Mulligan fit the bill perfectly. When one of her marks whined, “It’s every man’s worst nightmare, getting accused of something like that,” Mulligan, as Cassandra, replied, cooly: “Can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?” The intelligence, pain and determination reflected on her face was just so clear.
Mulligan received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her performance, but lost to Frances McDormand in “Nomadland.” Writer/director Fennell took home the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay—deservedly so. Women will love her movie’s theme of empowerment. Men, well, if you don’t get it, then I suspect you are part of the problem. I give “Promising Young Women” 4.5 stars.
“Promising Young Woman” is available on Netflix DVD and to rent on Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, Apple TV, Google Play and Vudu.