Promising Young Woman (2020) Dir. Emerald Fennel (Focus Features)
Trigger Warming: Sexual Assault and Rape.
Gabrielle Kynoch reviews the 2021 Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning film
We’re living in a heightened space of awareness, exemplified by movements such as #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and #StopAsianHate. New space is opening to allow marginalised voices to tell their stories. As Queen & Slim reflected the Black experience in Donald Trump’s North America, Promising Young Woman (Dir. Emerald Fennel) shows the lived experience of many women living in a patriarchal world. Although these films feel timely, many would argue that they are severely overdue…
Depicting the aftermath of sexual assault against a character called Nina, Promising Young Woman is part twisted fantasy and part dark reality. Even though we never meet Nina, the movie is centred around her implied death after not being supported or believed. Enter Cassie (Carey Mulligan), Nina’s best friend; wearing a broken-heart necklace engraved with Nina’s name, Cassie takes it upon herself to ‘educate’ the men who cross over the line of flirting into sexual assault. Whenever the word ‘no’ fails to alter their behaviour, each man is recorded in her notebook.
The sickly pinks and neon lights of the film’s palette show the two sides of Cassie’s personality. As the film progresses, we see her vulnerability emerge; she questions her decisions, her life’s path, and her growing feelings for a man she likes (Bo Burnham). As people continue to disappoint her, Cassie’s mission gathers pace; her determination burns brighter, buzzing loud until finally bursting. The same use of contrast finds it’s way into the entire film, from the bubblegum pop hits played by a string orchestra (cue Britney’s Toxic in the trailer) and the oddly traditional aesthetics of Cassie’s parents’ (Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown) middle-class home and the club-like chemist. Choosing striking clashes to throw the audience into confusion adds to the underline message – expectation versus reality and feeling uncomfortable.
Watching the five-time Oscar nominated film in the weeks following Sarah Everard’s disappearance in the UK, Promising Young Woman feels like a protest. Instead of being polite and trying to negate harassment while avoiding insult, Cassie becomes an anti-hero for victims and survivors of assault and sexual abuse. Although no harm towards men is depicted on screen, the film escalates into controversial territory. In each situation where basic respect is broken by a man, Cassie seems to reject the entire social contract and take revenge into her own hands.
Upon the film’s initial release, there was a lot of noise around the casting. A (male) Variety critic said that Carey Mulligan was an ‘odd choice’ as the lead, ‘Mulligan, a fine actress, seems a bit of an odd choice as this admittedly many-layered apparent femme fatale – Margot Robbie is a producer here, and one can (perhaps too easily) imagine the role might once have been intended for her. Whereas with this star, Cassie wears her pickup-bait gear like bad drag; even her long blonde hair seems a put-on.’ (Variety, 2020). Already, a film about sexual harassment against women was being critiqued via the male gaze, the appearance of an actress apparently suspending belief too far. Margot Robbie, recognised for playing the ‘crazed woman’ in I, Tonya and Suicide Squad, doesn’t feel like a good fit for this role; Carey Mulligan, although still stunning, is ‘the girl next door’ type. Proving its not just the celebrity figures vocal throughout the #MeToo movement that helped convict Harvey Weinstein; the film emphasises the non-discriminatory nature of sexual violence. Any woman could relate to Nina and Cassie’s experiences – according to UN Women UK, 97% of women aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed.
For me, the casting was spot on; the film opens with early noughties ‘good guy’ Adam Brody (The O.C). Later we see Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Superbad) claiming he’s a ‘nice guy’. These actors are instantly recognisable as the ‘sweet boys’ no one would suspect of sexual misconduct. This is the ultimate point of the film; just as anybody could be the target of sexual abuse, so too could the perpetrator. The disturbing accuracy with which Promising Young Woman reflects reality for so many women exemplifies the crucial need for movements such as #MeToo to continue uninhibited, and for conversations about gender-based violence to remain in the spotlight long after this year’s Oscars have become yesterday’s news.
By Gabrielle Kynoch
Watch Promising Young Woman on Sky/NOW TV (UK) and Amazon Prime (US)
Oscar: Best Original Screenplay (winner), Best Picture (nominated), Best Actress (nominated), Best Director (nominated), Best Film Editing (nominated).
BAFTA: Best Original Screenplay (winner), Best British Film (winner), Best Film (nominated), Best Film Music (nominated), Best Editing (nominated), Best Casting (nominated).