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Issue 1762
The student newspaper of Imperial College London

Keep the Cat Free

Promising Young Woman ★★★☆☆

Film Editor Oliver Weir reviews Emerald Fennell's debut feature film 'Promising Young Woman'—a story of a woman's revenge against a society unwilling to listen to those most in need of support.

Promising Young Woman Poster Photo: LuckyChap Entertainment FilmNation Entertainment


in Issue 1762

Promising Young Woman

★ ★ ★
Not yet released in the UK
12th February

Promising Young Woman has proved popular among critics circles and the (largely American) audiences that have watched it so far. It is director Emerald Fennell’s debut feature film and it stars Carey Mulligan as Cassie: a woman racked with guilt and anger, unable to move forwards with her job because of what happened to her friend Nina one drunken night back in medical school. Cassie prowls the streets and clubs of her hometown, pretending to be paralytically drunk, so she may prey on the predatory men who attempt to take advantage of her. Alongside her nightly adventures, she becomes more acquainted with old medical school classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham), who seems to be charming and considerate. Promising Young Woman immediately emerges on two fronts: 1.) As a social commentary on the way sexual assault cases are treated in the public eye and the justice system; and 2.) As an engaging revenge thriller, glazed with pop music and dark comedy. 

Before discussing the critical aspect of the film I should say that as a dark comedy/thriller it was perfectly serviceable; I didn’t find it as funny as many people appear to have done, but Mulligan’s performance was consistently engaging, especially since a large part of her role was to play a woman who has retreated into herself and has been ransacked of ambition.

An engaging revenge thriller, glazed with pop music and dark comedy

Although Promising Young Woman presents some observations of society’s flaws in the first few acts—seen in the behaviour of the sleazy men Cassie goes home with as well as the callous dismissal of Nina’s case by the Dean of the Medical School—it withholds the sting of its social commentary until the final ten minutes, letting it take shape in a bold, difficult to watch, twist ending. It wasn’t until the end that I realised just how much the film had been begging for something as strident as that fateful scene. Throughout the film little focus is placed on Nina’s case, or on the feelings of her bereft mother. Instead, we follow the manifestations of Cassie’s grief and guilt, which takes the form of a torrent of revenge. This revenge storyline is treated with a light-heartedness, with the cinematography of a pop music video, and with the breezy dialogue and wit of a rom-com. (For example, when asked what themes are explored in Promising Young Woman, director Emerald Fennell replied: ‘Forgiveness, romance, revenge...Paris Hilton’.) All of this is to say that the first two acts somewhat mellow the very serious topic that the film seems ardent to tackle (the film’s title being a reference to the famous People vs Turner case in the USA).

The film needs the ending in order to salvage itself thematically—until that point, the film is very safe, with none of its subplots saying anything particularly interesting or indeed amounting to much (c.f. Cassie’s escapades with men at night, her relationship with Madison, as well as the episode with Dean Walker—they all ‘learn their lesson’ and that’s that, no bite). The final ten minutes seemed to me to be the only part of the film that faced the subject matter in all its grotesqueness; it did not hide behind a pop song or a quick laugh, nor was it over-dramatised by a flashy lighting choice. You can choose to engage in the finer subplots of the first 90 minutes in whatever way you wish, perhaps even not at all, but Fennell removes that option to engage at the end—as long as you haven’t turned away, you will have an emotional reaction to the subject matter.  It is in that final sequence, between Cassie and Al, that Fennell earns all the directing and writing plaudits she has received thus far. 

Promising Young Woman is scheduled for release in the UK on 12th February.

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