Promising Young Woman (2020)
If a great film is one in which you feel intrigued by plot, enveloped in character, shaken by emotion and surprised at how it ends, then the psychological thriller Promising Young Woman (2020) is a great film. That is not to say it is without fault; rather its impact rises above its limitations to deliver a bullseye message much needed by its target audience.
The story opens with a drunken Cassie (Carey Mulligan) spreadeagled on a sofa in a late-night bar. She is eyed off by a group of apparently well-bred middle-class males, tossing for who will rescue the damsel-in-distress and reap the rewards for ‘gallantry’. It’s a scenario played out in real life in bars all over the world. Except here, a very sober Cassie is on a mission to avenge the brutal rape and killing of her best friend Nina, all the while keeping a scorecard that does not ease the pain.
Her crusade is not just against sleazy male predators; she roots out those in positions of trust who should know better but who ignored Nina when it mattered most. Just as Cassie hits the low point of despair in what seems an endless cycle of vengeance and loneliness, she thinks she has met someone special but must learn again: all that glistens is not gold. Locked in a self-destructive spiral she plans an elaborate finale to call out those responsible for Nina’s death, but events catastrophically twist out of control.
This powerful portrait of a deadly serious subject pulls no punches. Mulligan is outstanding in capturing the emotional rage of a woman hell-bent on revenge and she single-handedly propels the film. At every turn, as we find out more and more about how Nina was killed, we are absorbed into Cassie’s world view despite its destructive power.
There will be many men who squirm in their seats as they recognise behaviour from the ‘boys will be boys’ club. There will be others in positions of authority who may need to confront their own role in enabling and protecting toxic masculinity. Simply turning away shares the guilt.
At almost two hours the film’s tension curve inevitably rises then flattens, and some scenes are repetitive in ways that contribute little to the narrative arc. A half hour of editing cuts would have helped the pace match the story, but there is no mistaking the film’s message and impact. Whatever its limitations, the final chapter is a masterful blend of horror and surprise: enough to make shock-master Hitchcock smile.
Director: Emerald Fennell
Stars: Carey Mulligan