Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman has proved to be a controversial one. After receiving rave reviews and a strong word of mouth at Sundance Film Festival in January 2020, Promising Young Woman wasn’t released in the UK until 2021, over a year after its debut. Upon release, it was met with mostly positive, but also plenty of mixed reviews due to its polarising, yet bold narrative.
Promising Young Woman follows Cassie (Carey Mulligan), once a promising medical student who now spends her days working in a coffee shop and her nights pretending to be drunk and vulnerable, allowing men to take her home and then teaching them a lesson when they inevitably try to take advantage of her. Her reasons? Her best friend Nina was raped and she took her own life, leaving Cassie angry and full of unresolved grief that now runs her life. Cassie’s life takes a turn when Ryan, an old classmate from medical school walks into her coffee shop one day but at the same, an opportunity to avenge Nina’s fate appears.
In many ways, Promising Young Woman seems to be a rape-revenge story. As such though, Promising Young Woman fails. While the somewhat smug, yet shocking ending has garnered plenty of criticism but also offers some short-term relief and satisfaction, this is ultimately a story about how overwhelming, all-consuming and destructive grief can be. Cassie is unable to let go of Nina and it’s unclear whether she would truly be at peace even after punishing all the men in the world. Once you look at the film through that lens, Fennell’s film reaches its full potential.
Fennell directs Promising Young Woman with gusto and with a clear vision. The visual palette is fun and candy-coloured; there is nothing subtle about Promising Young Woman, but perhaps the entire point of the film is that the time for subtlety is over. It’s a film that tackles toxic masculinity, victim-blaming and rape culture straight on without bothering to sugarcoat anything. Fennell’s script smartly uses familiar language and phrases and never settles on blaming all the men in the world. Yes, men are terrible in Fennell’s film and can’t be trusted, but Cassie and Fennell also point a finger at the dean of the university, played by Connie Britton.
Carey Mulligan delivers a poignant, at times ugly and deliciously wicked performance as Cassie. Her performance is always rooted in Cassie’s trauma and grief and even when Promising Young Woman veers into dark comedy, her performance never becomes a caricature or hysteric. The casting of Bo Burnham as the ultimate nice guy Ryan is simply genius and he brings much-needed levity and charm into the film which otherwise can become quite heavy.
Without revealing too much, there are narrative aspects to Promising Young Woman that should be criticised or at least discussed. It’s by no means a perfect film, Fennell’s direction at times lacks nuance and the pacing is a little off and it will always divide audiences. Objectively, it’s a very competent film, with compelling performances and an inspired soundtrack, full of bangers, but on a subjective, individual level, reactions will vary. Promising Young Woman can be triggering and infuriating or it can be empowering and some viewers might find comfort or resolution in all its messiness and boldness.
The home entertainment release comes with two featurettes that discuss Fennell’s bold vision as well as a discussion with the cast about their roles and performances.
Promising Young Woman is available to own digitally and on Blu-ray and DVD now from Universal Home Entertainment.