In Emerald Fennell’s heady, challenging debut, the word rape is never spoken aloud. Nina, the woman whose sexual assault and consequent suicide catapults best friend Cassie (Carey Mulligan) onto a path of bloody retribution, is never shown. Instead, Promising Young Woman details the cause and effect of rape, every scene scripted in a serrated, satirical voice.
The cause is established from the start, as a thumping remix of Charlie XCX’s pop anthem ‘Boys’ plays over a dancefloor of writhing city types, tight chinos barely suppressing the signals omitted from each thrusting pelvis. Nina’s attackers escaped punishment, and so the initial effects of the suicide are felt most by Cassie. Nina’s death caused her to drop out of medical school, and she spends her days working in a café, barely holding it together. Until the sun sets, that is…
At night, Cassie goes in search of vengeance. Acting drunk and vulnerable, she deceives the men who prey on her, doling out punishment in turn. Where Fennell makes her protagonist an ambiguous character, she commits to exposing the men in vivid detail. They drink kumquat liqueur and advise Cassie to wear less makeup. They snort coke and wear fedoras to nightclubs. As an extra little knife twist, they’re played by trusted millennial do-gooders like Adam ‘Seth from The O.C.‘ Brody and Superbad‘s McLovin’ Christopher Mintz-Plasse. These male predators – the film screams – could be anyone.
As things progress, Cassie’s personal relationships are used as case studies to examine systemic rape culture: from the female dean in denial to sceptical friend Madison (played with superficial breeziness by Alison Brie). Fennell isn’t interested in easy answers or closure for her characters – and even with the arrival of Bo Burnham’s clean-cut love interest, there is little relief for Cassie. Grief, rage and loneliness define her journey – and it’s Fennell’s clever dissection of those emotions which elevates Promising Young Woman above a hyper-stylised sermon on misogyny. It helps that Mulligan is on top form too – giving Cassie a sharp wit and an air that in any other context would seem villainous.
Sadly, as Cassie gets close to tracking down Nina’s attackers, the film loses its nerve. Everything climaxes in an unexpected but muddled sequence that is visually wonderful though slightly underwhelming. Yet this will not be a film defined by its closing message. From the opening bars of ‘Boys’ to Cassie’s distinctive nurse costume and candy-coloured wig, Fennell has delivered an aesthetically astute directorial debut that’s packed with verve – and hides an important message just beneath its pastel-coloured shell. The framing of women’s trauma on-screen is slowly evolving (see I May Destroy You and I Hate Suzie) and Promising Young Woman, even with its imperfections, is no exception.
- Director: Emerald Fennell
- Starring: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Adam Brody
- Release date: Out now in cinemas