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Hannah Woodhead

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Promising Young Women – first look review

Carey Mulligan is on blistering form in Emerald Fennell’s darkly comic, provocative debut feature.

Despite efforts to move towards a culture which blames perpetrators of rape rather than victims, we still have a long way to go. It’s no surprise that this horrific form of sexual assault has cropped up time and time again in films; one only has to look to Wikipedia for a long list of inclusions in the ‘rape-revenge’ genre, from ghastly torture porn to subversive works by emerging female directors.

As more women are able to tackle this topic on their own terms, rather than relying on ‘representation’ through stories written and told by men, we are increasingly able to change the narrative. Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman feels like an important addition in this new canon, an incendiary dramedy that confronts the trappings of the genre as well as societal complacency towards women who speak up against sexual predators.

Haunted by events which occurred during her time at medical school, 30-year-old Cassie (Carey Mulligan) engages in self-destructive behaviour while just about holding down a job at a coffee shop, much to the chagrin of her parents, who she still lives with in a sprawling suburban home. An encounter with an old classmate (Bo Burnham) compels her to exorcise some personal demons and forces her peers to confront the incident which ended Cassie’s dreams of becoming a doctor. Juxtaposed with pastel-hued interiors and sparkly pop bangers is the memory of something ugly and monstrous, but no one around Cassie has any interest in confronting it, much less trying to make amends (not that one ever really can).

There can never be a definitive film on rape and trauma; instead each one offers us new ways of seeing and understanding years of collection oppression and abuse. Fennell’s film is one story, featuring a protagonist who is righteously angry and often unlikable, and a host of soft-featured ‘nice guys’ plucked from pop culture (Adam Brody, Chris Lowell and Christopher Mintz-Plasse all feature), but it’s symbolic of something so many women have faced – not just the trauma of rape, but the aftermath and frequent dismissal of victims as liars or fantasists.

Remarkably, Fennell marries heavy subject matter with impressive lightness. Promising Young Woman is a black comedy at heart, with one awkward family dinner scene particularly memorable. Of course, the humour makes the dark implications of the film’s third act all the more shocking.

From her work on Killing Eve to her short film Careful How You Go, Fennell has always demonstrated a fascination with the grey spaces of morality, and her debut feature is no exception – it’s a meticulous, candy-coloured fairy tale with a blistering central performance from Carey Mulligan that’s quite unlike anything she’s done before. Provocative and recalcitrant, it’s sure to spark plenty of debate, but also resonate with anyone who has seen their life (or, indeed, the life of someone they love) changed forever by rape.

Watching this film at Sundance, where Harvey Weinstein used to act as de facto mayor, feels particularly poignant; films have such power to help us confront not only pain, but the ugliness of the society we live in and those failed by institutions supposed to protect them. It’s not just the institutions though; it’s individuals too, who believe perpetrators over victims and tell women to not make a fuss. There’s still so far for us to go in correcting this, but if you don’t leave the cinema after watching Promising Young Woman with a sense of unshakable anger on behalf of all the women and girls failed by the justice system, you haven’t been paying close enough attention.

Published 26 Jan 2020

Tags: Bo Burnham Carey Mulligan Emerald Fennell Sundance Film Festival

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