Promising Young Woman (2020) – on demand – Oscar winner

Promising Young Woman stars Carey Mulligan in a witty, much-talked-about and multi-award-nominated writer/director debut by actor Emerald Fennell.

Lethal White Female

by Alexa Dalby

Promising Young Woman

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Promising Young Woman has one of the best pre-titles sequences ever. An obviously passed-out-drunk young woman (Carrie Mulligan) on her own in a nightclub looks to be a young woman promising easy prey for a group of unscrupulous men egging each other on. It’s an all-too-familiar situation. For a bet, one of them pretends to be a good samaritan by supposedly looking after her and making sure she gets home, but he diverts the taxi to his apartment and persuades her to lie down on his bed… But then he’s in for a show-stopping shock. Titles roll in the shocking-pink-neon style of TV’s Killing Eve.

That’s the premise of writer/director Emerald Fennell’s Oscar-nominated debut film set in the US, stylised in pastel-candy cup-cake colours. By day, Cassandra works a dead-end job in a coffee shop, with a sympathetic female manager. By night, she’s a predator roaming social venues, an agent provocateur playing vulnerable drunken female bait.

Too many cases of sexual assault on unconscious women come to mind – just to name two in the US recently, Brock Turner, leniently sentenced in 2016, and Brett Kavanaugh, nominated in 2018 to the US Supreme Court.

Promising Young Woman is, it transpires, a rape-culture-revenge fantasy drama when it’s revealed why Cassandra (Cassie) dropped out of a promising career in medical school and what inspired her one-woman vendetta against misogynist males – eventually, we discover, one in particular who knew her best friend Nina (another promising young woman training to be a doctor). A lunch date with another fellow student Madison, now comfortably married, presents the conventional, male, alternative viewpoint to Cassie.

Emerald Fennell’s script is fun, witty and challenging. Her direction is crisp and to the point. But the stylisation of the colours and setting reminds us that Promising Young Woman is still a one-note wish-fulfilment fantasy. What the film is saying has more depth than its characterisations. It’s interesting to compare and contrast it with Michaela Coel’s critically acclaimed, more-nuanced recent British TV series I May Destroy You, though of course that had more screen time to  develop its complicated themes.

Given the all-too-prevailing context of the death of Sarah Everard and the Reclaim the Streets movement, sadly the film couldn’t be more topical and its underlying problem more enduring. Cassandra tries to fight it in her own way alone but she’s damaged and she crashes and burns. If only things could change. In society, its Toxic (referenced in the soundtrack) institutional misogyny, media depictions of women and control of their image. For all the (not unmerited) hoo-ha surrounding it, and despite the accolades of its multiple award nominations and feminist creative team, unfortunately I don’t think this is the film to effect that monumental, societal change, though what could do? Answers on a postcard, please.

Promising Young Woman is streaming on Amazon Prime from 16 April 2021 in the UK. It received four Golden Globe nominations, three BAFTAs, winning Best British Film, and five Oscar nominations, to be determined on 25 April 2021.

Emerald Fennell won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Join the discussion