Thursday, 22 April 2021

Promising Young Woman (2020)

You're probably already familiar with Promising Young Woman, either after seeing the impressive trailer or just hearing about the excellence of the central performance from Carey Mulligan. If you have heard people heap lots of praise upon it then, trust me, it's all warranted. Promising Young Woman is an enjoyable thriller that manages to be as entertaining and satisfying as it is searingly damning.

Mulligan plays Cassandra, a young woman who dropped out of university after a traumatic event changed her life, and the life of her friend, Nina, forever. Always ready to assume the worst in people, Cassandra hangs around in various clubs, pretending that she is very drunk, and waits for some guy to come along and act as if he's being her saviour. When the man inevitably decides that sex is on the cards, Cassandra drops her charade and confronts them about their behaviour. Despite this being all well and good, and an important lesson for every man she meets, Cassandra also has a grand plan to get revenge on the main criminal who ruined Nina's life. But that plan may need some tweaking, especially as she connects with Ryan (Bo Burnham), a paediatrician who was also at the same university. Is Ryan different from other men she has encountered? Is he a good man? He certainly seems to be better than most.

Although she has a number of acting credits to her name, this is an incredible feature debut from writer-director Emerald Fennell (who also wrote a number of episodes for the highly-praised Killing Eve). The big plus is creating a central character who is such a determined and smart day of reckoning for those who are blissfully ignorant of her ongoing work. Although taking aim at the behaviour of many men, it also ensures that viewers are reminded of how society is still designed to support and enforce a patriarchy that allows that kind of behaviour to be justified, defended, or disbelieved, even in the face of clear and obvious evidence.

Mulligan gives what may well be a career-best performance here, and that is saying something. Her character is so often attempting to outwit and wrong-foot others that her performance needs to be made up of layers upon layers. Burnham is very good alongside her, someone who may be a good guy, patient and understanding, but who may also get in the way of the main plan. Alison Brie gives an enjoyably ugly turn as Madison, someone who disbelieved Nina back in university, and doesn't think of her reaction as necessarily something to be ashamed of, and Connie Britton is so detached in her role of Dean Walker that it would be funny if it wasn't so sad/horrible. Chris Lowell is Al Monroe, the top name on Cassandra's list, with good reason, and he's also very good. Nobody gives a bad performance at all, whether it's Adam Brody or Christopher Mintz-Plasse, playing two different types of awful men, Laverne Cox, as Cassandra's employer, or Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge, who play Cassandra's parents. You also get a fantastic couple of scenes featuring an uncredited Alfred Molina, a lawyer who bluntly lays out how the system works.

Considering the path this goes on, it's surprising that Fennell has kept it all so perfectly balanced. There are moments that will give you chills, scenes full of real potential nastiness, but they're often eventually reframed by a line of dialogue or an action that shows we, as much as anyone else around Cassandra, were being tricked into thinking the worst. Which is easy to do, because few people have as strong a moral compass as Cassandra has, and that says a lot about where we are with our world today.


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  1. Carey Mulligan was fantastic start to finish in this. The movie is not a feel good movie, but it was a powerful one.

    1. Yeah, definitely not a feel good movie, but impressively put together by Fennell in a way that saves it from being the grim experience it could have been.