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Promising Young Woman, Sky Cinema review - Emerald Fennell's brilliant directorial debut | reviews, news & interviews

Promising Young Woman, Sky Cinema review - Emerald Fennell's brilliant directorial debut

Promising Young Woman, Sky Cinema review - Emerald Fennell's brilliant directorial debut

Carey Mulligan scintillates in Oscar-nominated romcom-noir

Sizzling: Carey Mulligan as Cassie, with Bo Burnham as Ryan

After winning a couple of Baftas, and with five nominations at next week’s Oscars, Promising Young Woman comes surging in on the crest of a wave.

Emerald Fennell, already known for acting roles in The Crown and Call the Midwife and for showrunning series two of Killing Eve, hits it out of the park here as writer and first-time director, and she’s the first British female to be nominated for the Best Director Oscar. She’s brilliantly supported by Carey Mulligan’s sizzling lead performance.

Promising Young Woman isn’t easy to pigeonhole, but that’s part of its tantalising allure. It’s by turns a satire, a shout-out for female empowerment, a comedy and a revenger’s tragedy. Where Fennell has been really smart is to keep the narrative bubbling so intoxicatingly that you never feel you’re getting a #MeToo lecture or being beaten over the head with a tract about sexual predators, because the complex flavours of character, motivation and action have been blended with the skill of a filmic masterchef.

Mulligan plays Cassie Thomas, a former medical student who turned her back on a medical career and now lives with her parents while working in the Make Me Coffee cafe (the film was shot in Los Angeles, but the idea was to create an American Everywhereville). Her boss, Gail (Laverne Cox), can’t really understand why Cassie is marking time waiting tables, but enjoys their friendship anyway.

Cassie may lack career motivation, but we learn that she has a burning mission in life. Irrevocably scarred by the tragic fallout from a past sexual assault on her friend and soul-mate Nina, Cassie is a nighttime avenger. She dresses provocatively, prowls the local clubs and feigns near-catatonic drunkenness in order to lure horny males to pick her up. When they’re crawling all over her and about to exploit her inebriated befuddlement, she snaps awake into icy sobriety to challenge their predatory lust.

This is a dangerous game, and the film walks a skilful line between evoking the rumbustious spirit of a brat-pack romcom while stoking up a mounting sense of unease as Cassie’s quest advances inexorably towards a climax as disturbing as it’s dramatically satisfying. Mulligan’s skill in skipping deftly between farce, grief and seething emotional disturbance is almost uncanny, as is her mastery of drawling Cali-speak. She has a great scene with a sozzled Alison Brie (pictured above) where they try to outdo each other in dragging out words like won-durrrrr, remem-burrrr and particu-lurrrr.

Everything works. The soundtrack features original music by Anthony Willis and some smartly-chosen pop songs, but above all a show-stopping extract from the Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, its love-in-death theme a baleful portent of what's to come. Production designer Michael Perry has devised a palette of blues, pinks and bright neon colours which lend the film an air of kitschy pop-art, in ironic contrast to the emotional damage that steadily unfolds. Films that look like this are frothy and fun, Fennell seems to be telling us, so when the mood turns to killer-noir the impact is exponentially more devastating. There’s a particularly distressing suffocation scene which wouldn’t have looked out of place in The Sopranos.

Male viewers may feel some disappointment at the way their co-genderees are presented, since the men on show are an appalling parade of arrogant sexist brutes with a side order of bullying entitlement. Perhaps Fennell wants us to ask ourselves "are we really all like this?" The ones who claim to be nice guys seem especially heinous.

Still, Fennell doesn’t let women off too lightly either. For instance, there’s a piquant and pivotal sequence where Cassie visits the dean of her alma mater, Forrest University, to confront her about the Nina outrage. Dean Walker (Connie Nashville Britton, pictured right) can’t even remember the incident, but insists it would be wrong “to ruin a young man’s life every time we get an accusation like this.” To teach her a lesson, the highly inventive Cassie has engineered a scenario in which the dean’s daughter is placed in similar jeopardy.

It’s rare to experience a film which delivers so much fizz, flair, and wit, yet leaves you shattered at the end of the final act and haunted by the darkness of its themes. We await the Oscars with bated breath.

  • Promising Young Woman is available on Sky Cinema and NOW. The Oscars 2021 are on 25 April
Mulligan’s skill in skipping deftly between farce, grief and seething emotional disturbance is almost uncanny


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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