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Promising Young Woman review – Carey Mulligan’s avenging angel burns bright

Wendy Ide
·4-min read

It’s stingingly timely material. Thematically, Emerald Fennell’s feature debut, Promising Young Woman, could have been distilled from pure pain, an amalgamation of the countless rape culture testimonies on sites such as Everyone’s Invited. But tonally, with its extravagantly arched eyebrow and lacquered manicure of irony, this film feels oddly dated – a couple of decades out of step with current sensibilities. Were it not for Carey Mulligan’s Cassandra, an avenging angel in bubblegum-pink lip gloss, the picture may well have toppled off its stripper heels long before it got to stomp into its divisive shocker of a final act. Mulligan’s withering disdain is a thing of beauty. If anyone wins prizes for this liberally and generously nominated film – it has five Oscar nods, including best picture and best director, and scored six Bafta nominations, winning two – it should be her.

And for a while at least, the writing matches the quality of her performance. The film’s opening is a DayGlo blast of righteous catharsis. We meet Cassie blurry with booze, slumped across a banquette in the kind of bar where the alpha-bro afterwork crew go to toast themselves. She’s a beautiful wreck, the skirt of her business suit bunched up, hair and life unravelling. Three brash guys eye her hungrily, but it’s the most seemingly decent of them (Adam Brody) who approaches, with the offer to see her home safely. But danger comes in all shapes and sizes, and the next thing we know, the “nice guy” is plying her with emetic-pink kumquat liqueur and manhandling her on to his bed.

The scene then takes a joyous swerve into the unexpected. Cassie drops the drunk act and snaps back into focus, fixing him with a glare that is the prelude to a reckoning. Fennell cuts away before we see how the teachable moment plays out. But the next shot rejoins Cassie in the hard light of the following morning, dishevelled but triumphant. She’s devouring a burger. It might be ketchup that trickles down her arm. And then again, it might be blood.

When she isn’t bringing her own brand of justice to bear on a seemingly endless stream of creeps, Cassie is unmoored. Having dropped out of medical school seven years earlier, for reasons that become clear later in the film, she is just shy of 30 and still living at home with her parents. She works soul-sapping shifts in a coffee shop, deftly fending off the opportunity for promotion brokered by her well-meaning boss (Laverne Cox). Her resolute avoidance of any kind of hope or future is derailed, however, when Cassie meets Ryan (Bo Burnham), the first person in years who is able to find a chink in her hard-baked cynicism.

The film attempts to capture the aftermath of a collision between grief and rage – there’s a kinship with Three Billboards, a similarly polarising picture about one-woman vigilantism. But grief – the draining, exhausting sadness that would prompt someone to relinquish their dreams and ambitions – and the kind of relentless, scalding fury that sends Cassie out, night after night, seeking retribution are two very different energies. And Fennell, who cut her teeth scripting Killing Eve, struggles to strike a persuasive balance between the two.

Related: ‘It’s wild!’ Carey Mulligan and Emerald Fennell on making Oscars history

She’s on surer footing with directorial decisions that don’t require such subtle fine tuning. The pick-and-mix candy-colour palette (with particular emphasis on Biro blues and lipstick reds) is bracingly snotty and confrontational; the sly use of angel imagery (a coffee shop logo halo; wings formed from Cassie’s mother’s horrendous decor) is a playfully kitsch detail which is unnecessarily sledgehammered home later by the use of Juice Newton’s Angel of the Morning on the soundtrack. More successful is the use of a subverted version of Britney Spears’s Toxic; a track dismissed as disposable pop fluff, originally recorded by a woman who was consistently underestimated by predatory men, becomes an anthemic battle cry. As the film’s undeniably potent final scene suggests, perhaps there is some justice in the world after all.

• Promising Young Woman is on Sky Cinema and Now TV