Hollywood tries to operate as an inclusive space, but the lingering racial and gender inequalities still exist throughout all working industries. Thankfully, more diverse voices are getting their opportunity to express intimate sentiments on screen, including acclaimed Killing Eve screenwriter Emerald Fennell. Her debut effort Promising Young Woman has endured a long journey since its Sundance debut (originally scheduled for an April release), but this lighting-rod effort will surely become a focal point of awards conversations. Simply put, this an exceptional film, one that critiques its relevant subject matter with weight and thoughtful craftsmanship.
Promising Young Woman follows Cassandra Thomas (Carey Mulligan), who spends her days working her ordinary coffee shop gig. Once night comes, Cassandra hits the town to exploit ill-advised men, catching them amidst their forceful behavior. After stumbling upon a forgotten foe, Cassandra seeks vengeance for the crimes that impacted her past.
Fennell’s big-screen debut lacks the frequent missteps of first-time filmmakers. She allures audiences in with her electric visual flourishes, utilizing luminous lighting and pop confectionary tracks to set the mood effectively. Right when we’re comfortable, Fennell grounds her narrative with a settled realism, with the two contrasting styles playing seamlessly into her thematic conceits. The vibrantly-stylized visual dynamics are a fitting critique of the male’s sexualized gaze towards innocuous women, while the grittier visual elements represent Cassandra’s lingering demons. Every shot is constructed with thought and flair, as Fennell marries the two sensibilities with effortless ease (she also imbues a sense of unease that permeates throughout the runtime).
Several films have zeroed their sights on male’s casual abuse and objectification, but few have hammered that conceit home with such gravitas. Whether it’s vapid-PC yuppies or overtly vulgar cave men, Fennell’s screenplay dispels any simplistic truths by running the full gamut of problematic behaviors. A loaded supporting cast of notable character actors helps portray this dynamic further (Bo Burnham, Max Greenfield, Adam Brody are among the group), with Fennell cleverly taking well-liked figures and showing the dark behaviors behind their personas. Fennell also does an adept job of displaying the multitude of ways women are pushed into subservient roles.
After entertaining audiences with a bevy of twists and turns, Fennell empathetically delivers her thesis with a stunning third act change-up on conventional formula. While it won’t win everyone over, I appreciate the writer/director’s favoring of realistic steaks while still balancing the dourness with some crowd-pleasing frames. It’s a joy to watch a film fearless in its pursuit, continually playing off the audience’s expectations with winning results.
The true heart of Promising Young Woman lies in Carey Mulligan’s awards-worthy performance. Mulligan has excelled throughout her career, but the role of Cassandra gives the actress new dimensionality to employ in her performance. When she’s going through town to punish cruel males, Mulligan adopts a chameleon-like persona as she balances her own persona with common female tropes. When the character is given an isolated space onscreen, Mulligan powerfully displays the emotional loss that drives her actions. Mulligan and Fennel extract thoughtful nuances from Cassandra’s continual struggle to move forward, reflecting the everlasting damage done by the cruel acts the film powerfully condemns.
Emerald Fennell’s astute balance between style and substance morphs Promising Young Woman into one of the year’s most accomplished features. I hope the writer/director and Mulligan receive the awards recognition they deserve.
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