Film Review – Promising Young Woman (2020)

We’ve been waiting for this one. Just like a lot of other films, true, but Promising Young Woman had gathered such a head of steam that, when it still didn’t have a UK release date as the Oscar nominations were revealed, something had to change. And, instead of waiting for cinemas to re-open in May – after the trophies had been handed out – pragmatism won and Sky Cinema came out on top. But has it been worth the wait? Oh, yes. And how!

The events of recent weeks have turned this revenge thriller laced with the bitterest of comedy into something even more prescient, making it an edgy, sometimes uncomfortable watch. And, despite that sprinkling of humour, there are times when the laughs gets stuck in your throat, so that this female reviewer was left with a case of the wobbles and in need of a strong drink. The essential story goes like this. Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is thirty, lives with her parents and works in a small coffee shop. But every week, she dresses up and goes to one of the local clubs, where she pretends to be so drunk that she doesn’t know what she’s doing and is inevitably picked up by an unsuspecting man. The story unfolds to reveal the tragic reason behind her clear desire for vengeance, while allowing her to cross paths with a former college friend who is so different from all the other men she’s met recently that the two start dating.

Writer/director Emerald Fennell (also The Crown’s Camilla Parker-Bowles) scatters her tart and acutely observed script with enough breadcrumbs for you to anticipate where it’s heading, even if there are times when you want to be wrong. They’re not all verbal – Cassie wears just part of a broken heart necklace which becomes increasingly obvious as the story moves on – and film’s crisp pace and electrifying central performance make for a compelling piece of storytelling, one which doesn’t hold back in making its point. The opening what can only be described as “crotch shots” set the tone for what’s to come, as do other early scenes which have more than a touch of Harley Quinn about them. She’s becoming something of a trademark for producer Margot Robbie.

Not that Fennell confines the tone to the scathing and the dark. There are moments of glowing happiness and softness, sharpening the bite of the harsher scenes, one in particular when Cassie is forced to re-live the most traumatic of events in the immaculate setting of her parents’ house, itself stuck in a past of its own. Mulligan is hardly ever off the screen so that, while the supporting characters give the likes of Bo Burnham, Alison Brie and Clancy Brown enough to get their teeth into, the film has her in full, sharp focus all the time so that everybody else plays second fiddle. This is easily a career best – no mean feat considering her career as a whole – combining fragility, devastation and vulnerability with calculating rage and devilish invention. It’s a performance that could take her all the way later this month at the Academy Awards.

Eschewing broad brush strokes in favour of telling little details, and making it easily worth a second viewing, Promising Young Woman leaves both men and women with a lot to think about, while women viewers may find some moments more familiar than they would like to admit – to themselves or to others. Prepare yourself to be shaken, to be shocked by a scene with not so much a sting in its tail as a savage laceration, and to have a film take up residence in your mind for hours afterwards. Above all, prepare yourself for a superior and challenging piece of film making.

★★★★1/2


Crime, Thriller, Drama | Cert: 15 | Sky Cinema | 16 April 2021 | Dir. Emerald Fennell | Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Adam Brody, Molly Shannon.