One of my most anticipated films of 2020 that was delayed due to the pandemic was Promising Young Woman. Directed and written by Emerald Fennell in her directorial debut and starring Carey Mulligan as Cassie, a woman who pretends to be intoxicated and then confronts the men who try to take advantage of her. Proving to be one of the best original films to come into the 2021 awards season, this is a shining moment for Mulligan and Fennell, putting films made by and starring women at the forefront. In a year that has seen Nomadland and First Cow be recognised among the Best Picture categories at various festivals, there has been a real breakthrough in mainstream frontrunners that are made by women. This could be a year that sees more than one woman nominated for Best Director.
Reading the initial plot and seeing the trailer is enough to cause a lot of hype and controversy because of the subject matter. However, this is a necessary film during a time where women are often ignored or not believed and are left feeling like they are the guilty party. Surprisingly, what stands out about Promising Young Woman is that it is truly made from the female gaze perspective and Fennell’s direction is hugely impressive. Her distinct and aggressive vision works so well when building up the moments of tension as we try to figure out what is going on in Cassie’s mind. This is very much a character driven film in which we dive into Cassie’s psyche and her unpredictability makes this one of the most original thrillers of recent years.
Mulligan brings a career best in her role as Cassie which is incredible considering the calibre of her previous performances. I don’t doubt that she will be receiving many nominations for Best Actress at all of the major awards shows, with many critics saying she should actually win. Mulligan’s range is showcased from the first scene as she transitions from intoxicated and vulnerable to fearless and confrontational. Noting down the names of the men she confronts, Cassie leads a double life albeit unsuccessfully. As her underground mission thrives, her personal and professional life suffers. She turns 30 but lives at her parents with no longterm plan in place. As everything begins to settle with Ryan, Cassie is at an inner conflict with herself and what she should do moving forward. It would have been so easy for many actors to overly do this role but Mulligan has the perfect subtly and restraint needed to provide a performance that is perfectly well-rounded. At the end of it all, Cassie is a flawed individual with a strong motive that has kept her anchored to the past and she’s come to the point where she has to move on with the film chronicling this struggle.
In support, Bo Burnham plays Ryan, Cassie’s love interest. Having been a pupil at medical school with Cassie before she dropped out, Ryan is sweet and good-natured. On the surface, he is everything that the men who encounter Cassie aren’t and this is alien to Cassie who doesn’t know how to emotional open herself up to him. What is great about Burnham is how subtle his performance is. Whereas Cassie is calculating and cold, he is warm and light, the perfect opposite for Cassie. Naturally, Ryan isn’t aware of Cassie’s antics which makes for a differing perspective when he sees her out and about with another man who she is luring into her trap. As the audience is aware of the act, it is easy to forget that it is something that no one else knows. Seeing his bewildered and disappointed reaction as he believes she isn’t interested in him at all is heartbreaking. It’s this naivity that makes his dark past seem all the more shocking during the start of the third act.
The score by Anthony Willis is phenomenal. Bringing tones from old-school horror with screeching violins and combining it with a modern beat that meshes together to bring a unique sound that works perfectly with the film. There are also a lot of romantic string pieces that would fit into any period drama such as the piece that plays when Ryan forgives Cassie and asks her out on another date. Alongside the pop inspired soundtrack that includes tracks from the Spice Girls and Paris Hilton which are more uplifting. Music is integral to the film, especially Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” which makes for the backing track for an emotional montage that tracks Cassie and Ryan’s relationship.
Promising Young Woman has proven itself to be a hugely impressive film and will probably be one of my strong favourites going into awards season. Fennell has knocked it out of the park in her directorial debut and I hope she gets recognition for her script, particularly and Mulligan is bound to receive a slew of award nominations and wins. It’s a film that I will be thinking about and wanting to rewatch when it is released. With so many themes and complex characters, there is so much to discuss and I am sure it is a film that will be referenced a lot in the future, especially when discussing feminist films and films made through the female gaze.
What did you think of Promising Young Woman? Let me know what you think in the comments below!