Promising Young Woman – Review

Carey Mulligan as Cassandra in Promising Young Women – Courtesy of Focus Features.

With just as much lip-glossed and pink scarfed style as it has deeply translatory messages – ‘Promising Young Woman’ benefits greatly from Mulligan’s superb acting prowess and writer-director Emerald Fennell’s complex storytelling arrangement.

Seeking revenge for her friend, Cassie Thomas hatches a chilling cunning plan to teach the people who have wronged her and her friend a lesson they will never forget. 

What sets ‘Promising Young Woman’ apart from the more brutal rape and revenge films of the past decade is its very prominent and very rapid tone shifting. There’s an almost unabashed dedication that writer director Emerald Fennel has to making you laugh throughout various parts of the film. It’s this constant shifting that ‘Promising Young Woman’ has between candidly funny, to horrific, to tense, to engaging that makes it such a unicorn within the exploitation genre. This is perhaps the most interesting film we’ve seen in 2020 thus far, at least in terms of how it’s constructed and how it’s telling its message. What struck us the most was this film’s ability to translate the coarseness of its message without exposing the audience to visually graphic scenes that can turn one’s stomach — in other words, there’s almost little to no actual distressing visual material in this film; most of it is implied – but make no mistake, you feel it just as intensely.

What cannot go without saying is the subject matter that this film is tackling; ‘Promising Young Woman’ may scare off crowds of folks too uncomfortable to see such a depressing subject matter be explored or perhaps may even deter people who are hesitant of feeling like the film may blame a specific group or institution of people – but what Emerald Fennell portrays so brilliantly here is a truthful and wholly unbiased view, she shows that no one is immune to the guilt or blame of participating in these acts if they knowingly were a part of hiding it, participating, or dismissing it. ‘Promising Young Woman’ is not afraid to blame EVERYONE – men, women, leaders, legal officials, friends – anybody and everybody has the potential to be part of the problem and that’s what sets this film apart from some of the more brutal rape and revenge films that are on-the-nose and very direct about their stance, even if those stances can unfortunately be equally as true to reality.

This film’s single strongest attribute was the casting of Carey Mulligan. Mulligan displays just as wide a spectrum of emotion and personality as this film does tone-shifting. Whether she’s replete with happiness, driven with unflinching rage, or broken apart in sadness – Mulligan convincingly displays each of these levels of emotion without making the character seem unbelievable in what she feels. The character of Cassie is most certainly a loose cannon that feels like she could go off at any moment, but Mulligan takes that character and makes her more of a controlled explosion, refines her, and gives her a body of flavour that we can’t imagine many other actresses quite pulling off. On top of Mulligan we have the role of the love interest by Bo Burnham – he is in many ways, central to making this film lighthearted – Bo has a natural ability to make awkward conversation fun and inviting for the audience.

Carey Mulligan as Cassandra and Bo Burnham as Ryan in Promising Young Women – Courtesy of Focus Features.

From the get-go, ‘Promising Young Woman’ immediately introduces us to the style in which the film decides to go in. The shot selection is key in this film, allowing the camera to hold its shots on a characters reaction allows the tonal shifts to feel more smooth and immediate. Shot composition is usually nicely done – as the framing and negative space are utilized nicely and often complemented with visual humour. There are a couple of awkward shots that really stick out as the frame is blurry in certain spaces which breaks immersion in quite an enthralling film.

Set design does not have much to offer as most scenes take place in quite generic locations and the film doesn’t quite do anything fascinating with them. The true brilliance is inside the makeup and hairstyling department as work with the main character, Cassie, is done in a way where the makeup and hairstyling compliment the evolution and development of the character. Haunting violin and piano pieces mixed with a quirky soundtrack, ‘Promising Young Woman’ uses its music well to capture the emotion of its scenes. One of the brilliant aspects of the music is where it is able to change the tone of a scene in a second, going from a sad sympathetic piece to a sudden rush of panic and uncertainty which has its viewers engaged and feeling the same emotions as the characters. 

This is a film with a clear and decisive message it wants to announce and the way in which it translates this message to the audience is the masterful part, along with Mulligan’s absorbing performance. ‘Promising Young Woman’ is exactly the kind of film that needs to be made if its desire is to open eyes to a problem – in many ways, it’s one of the most accessible films about this genre that we can think of.

8.3/10

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