Trigger Warning: Rape, sexual assault
Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut Promising Young Woman has been picking up awards left and right, from BAFTAs to Critics’ Choice Awards; it also has several Oscar nominations.
Promising Young Woman tells the story of Cassie Thomas, a nearly-30 medical school dropout who seeks to avenge the death of her best friend Nina, who was a victim of rape. Now, every week, Cassie goes to a nightclub alone and feigns drunkenness, allowing men to take her to their homes and revealing her sobriety when they attempt to take advantage of her.
In light of the MeToo movement and the fight against rape culture, this film holds everyone who is complicit in, either directly or indirectly, perpetuating this kind of culture accountable. It does not unfairly tarnish all men, only those who would take a woman’s drunkenness to be consent. There are also female characters who face Cassie’s wrath, from the medical school dean who dismissed Nina’s case for ‘lack of evidence’ to an old friend who believed Nina was lying. Promising Young Woman exposes that, to varying degrees, characters of both sexes are at fault.
Where the film struggles is its muddled attempt to be various genres and jostle many stylistic elements that fail to come together as a coherent whole. It’s a black comedy, revenge fantasy, thriller, feminist lecture and, with the introduction of the character Ryan, partly romantic comedy. With this issue, despite the promising and searing set up, the film begins to feel formless, like it isn’t sure what it wants to be.
Many have discussed the issues surrounding Cassie’s fixation on revenge; everything she does is because of Nina, and as critic Mary Beth McAndrews has written in her essay on RogerEbert.com, we never see Nina, or hear her voice, and thus she is stripped of personality and personhood. Nina’s mother asks Cassie to ‘move on’, but she is unable to, and the film never discusses how Cassie violates Nina’s consent, becoming the ‘avenging angel’ that Nina never asked for.
The performances from the cast are one of the strongest aspects of the film; Carey Mulligan brings depth, sensitivity and empathy to a protagonist who could so easily become incredibly unlikeable. Cassie’s grief is never dismissed, and the pain she feels allows the audience to understand her sometimes reprehensible actions. The film is not just a revenge fantasy, it is a sad story of how grief and anger can destroy a person.
Promising Young Woman is not a perfect film, and it is rather controversial, but it’s message is clear.