Talented hyphenate Emerald Fennell, the Killing Eve season 2 showrunner, unleashes one of the most audacious and provocative films of the year with Promising Young Woman, the writer-director-producer’s feature debut. A pitch black commentary on the unrelenting and insidious misogyny that keeps a tight grip on the culture even in the face of head-on confrontation and critique, Fennell’s uproariously funny film showcases a powerhouse Carey Mulligan in what could very well be her career-best performance. Together, Fennell and Mulligan make for a dream team — determined collaborators in sync and on the same page from first frame to last — and the result is a buzzworthy movie worth all the buzz.
Audiences have been waiting on Promising Young Woman for what seems like forever. The Sundance premiere screenings, accompanied by the laughter and gasps and cheers of enthusiastic viewers in packed auditoriums (when that was still, gloriously, a thing that happened) — anticipated solid returns and terrific word-of-mouth for the originally planned April release date set by Focus Features. But then, the global pandemic. And now, finally, a Christmas Day reservation in cinemas hurting for product and customers. If there is a silver lining, Promising Young Woman will now attract a greater share of attention as a bold bit of Wonder Woman 1984 counterprogramming.
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As movie theaters were shutting their doors last spring, the Promising Young Woman trailer was scorching eyeballs with its head-spinning premise. Mulligan’s Cassandra narrates in voiceover, “Every week, I go to a club. I act like I’m too drunk to stand. And every week, a nice guy comes over to see if I’m okay.” The fierce reckonings that follow are a lacerating repudiation of the Nice Guy, the wholly self-entitled and manipulative complainer ready to curse and threaten any potential romantic interest who doesn’t reciprocate. In this particular context, the Nice Guy is anything but. For more information, one can go down a Reddit rabbit hole at r/niceguys for hundreds of cringeworthy, real world examples.
Fennell imagines Cassie’s surroundings in vivid, candy-colored hues and pastel tints. The effect is redolent of the witch’s gingerbread and pastry house in the tale of Hansel and Gretel — an alluring facade masking something sinister. The more viewers learn about the protagonist and her motivations and history, the more one can admire Fennell’s perspicacity and her refusal to make the kinds of easy choices common to the genre/milieu. Mulligan fills Cassandra with measures of self-deprecation/self-loathing and with the righteous indignation and anger necessary to pull back the curtain on her evolving position as sometime prey, sometime predator.
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Promising Young Woman writes a fresh new chapter in the rape-revenge saga on the big screen, a complex filmography made all the more challenging by the cinema’s skill at rendering lurid, action-oriented visuals. In Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas notes, “Confusion about the relationship between rape and its artistic representation is historically entrenched, and existed long before the introduction of the movie camera.” Fennell explores this terrain with the skill and depth of both filmmaking veteran and social scholar, guiding viewers to places so surprising and unexpected that her film will stay with you for a long, long time.
Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is an associate professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997.