Promising Young Woman: Review. By Will Steele.
Promising Young Woman touted its arrival as a motion picture event which would ignite a conversation. Safe to say, it has delivered on this promise with the film sparking debate amongst casual viewers and cinephiles alike. So successful was Promising Young Woman at tapping into a public discourse that its writer and director Emerald Fennell’s screenplay triumphed in perhaps the most competitive category – that of original screenplay – at this year’s Academy Awards.
But upon further inspection, does Promising Young Woman exist as an excellent film on its own merit rather than simply a perceptive screenplay tapping into an ongoing contemporary debate surrounding sexual abuse towards women? Prominent films with accolades and acclaim have the dangerous tendency to build hype so tall that it builds insurmountable expectations amongst audiences. Will Promising Young Woman stand the test of time? I believe it will continue to ignite debates for decades to come.
This dark comedy centres on Cassie (Carey Mulligan) a med school drop-out whose seemingly aimless life sees her working as a barista whilst still living with her parents despite being on the cusp of her thirties. Unbeknownst to family and friends, Cassie is driven by a dark past and her purpose is one of slow and deadly revenge. When Cassie’s past begins to catch up to her, she confronts those who have led her down this path and we the audience begin to understand just why she seeks solace in vengeance.
Revenge thrillers are nothing new to moviegoers who have witnessed the evolution of the genre fronted by the likes of Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson up to present stars like Liam Neeson and Bruce Willis. Where Promising Young Woman excels is in its manipulation of this cinematic sub-genre which yields countless male-fronted iterations each passing year. Emerald Fennell has pulled a Trojan horse trick by packaging this searing social commentary as a violent Hollywood revenge thriller. Don’t be fooled by the kitsch and camp aesthetics on the surface. Hidden beneath the bubble-gum pop soundtrack, floral wardrobes and rainbow colour palette lies a story of deeply repressed emotional trauma. Albeit initially jarring, the deceptively infantile aesthetics of Promising Young Woman allude to traumas the screenplay masterfully unravels.
Meta-textuality is rife in modern media, but here it is so gloriously utilised that one can only be impressed. Fennell’s directorial debut takes you on an emotional rollercoaster which may leave you flummoxed, vindicated, or just plain mystified. This is the sign of a truly effective thriller which is fully realised onscreen by way of ingenious casting. Promising Young Woman is populated with a cavalcade of familiar faces; most of whom we may recognise from sit-coms and stand-up specials. Allowing performers like Bo Burnham, Alison Brie and Max Greenfield to play into and against their comedic personas allows for intricate nuance in how audiences will perceive characters. Promising Young Woman is remarkably refreshing in its characterisation of irksome characters who are not out-and-out evil, but rather recognisable variations on seemingly good natured people betrayed by their self-serving intentions.
Future audiences will continue to revisit Promising Young Woman to bask in this dynamic for the simply sad fact that ill-intentions are often subtler than most films tend to portray. Your typical Hollywood thriller traditionally pits gallant saintly hero against hand-wringing dastardly villains. Unlike those films, Promising Young Woman never spoon-feeds its audience. The bevy of symbols and motifs that are present only add to this respect for the audience. Motifs are delicate and messages are never wielded like batons to beat us over the head. Whilst many may argue over the debate raging at its heart, many others will find ripe conversation in debating the meaning behind the ambiguities of the film.
The bold claims that Promising Young Woman would ignite debate have been met, but whether this discussion will rage on is a question only time will tell. However it is the ugly truth at the heart of the film – that of misogyny, violence towards women, and moral accountability – which are so sharply felt now more than ever in the wake of #MeToo movement. It taps into more than just a hot topic; it speaks to an issue which spans centuries of injustice. Promising Young Woman will stand the test of time because it may always be relevant, even though it shouldn’t be.
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