Tearing its way through awards season is Promising Young Woman, the drama that has had film fans abuzz ever since the trailer first appeared in 2019. Just over a year and a pandemic later, the film has picked up two BAFTAs (Outstanding British Film and Best Original Screenplay), and is vying for five Oscars at the end of the month, including Best Picture and Best Actress.
Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie, a thirty-year-old woman who lives with her parents, having dropped out of college. By day she works at a coffee shop, but in the evening, she goes to bars and pretends to be drunk. She waits for a man feigning concern to take her home and attempt to take advantage of her, only to reveal her sobriety and hold them to account. Her nightly acts are part of a larger plan for justice after a traumatic incident involving her best friend years earlier.
Just as a life away from retribution seems possible after she meets and forms a connection with an old school friend (Bo Burnham), new information is revealed that plunges her further into her quest for justice.
The stunning feature debut of director Emerald Fennell is difficult to talk about in many ways. Firstly, because revealing too much of the plot leads to spoilers, and secondly because the subject matter is so very timely and raw. The issue of consent is dissected, as we hear these “nice guys” roll out horrifying judgements about Cassie “asking for it”, and the many men that end up as entries in her notebook have a depressingly familiar pattern.
Equally as chilling are the men and women we meet who would rather turn a blind eye than entertain that something like this could happen on their watch. As one target says “It’s every man’s worst nightmare, getting accused of something like that”, Cassie retorts “can you guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?” This is a sharp and timely reminder of the environment that allows those nightmares to happen.
While it can be tough viewing, Fennell fills the screen with surprising choices and dark wit. Ironic soundtrack picks and jarring visual touches, such as a surreal dinner with Cassie’s parents, all distinguish this story as something that is important, but also creative. Her casting is also impeccable – men you’re used to seeing in comedies, including Adam Brody and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, are among the men that take her home, while Burnham’s dry charm seems almost too good to be true.
That ingenuity is matched by a startling performance from Mulligan, who digs deep to show a soul so damaged by trauma that she has dedicated herself to meting out some pain of her own. With many of her biggest hits coming in stoic period dramas, it’s a showcase for the range of the Oscar nominee, who should be considered among the front runners when the statuettes are handed out.
Occasional wobbles in narrative aside, Promising Young Woman takes risks to shine a light on a troubling subject, bringing the best out of both director and star. While it may not get the cinematic release it deserves in the UK, it’s likely to be sought out for years to come.
Promising Young Woman is available on Sky Cinema from 16 April