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Promising Young Woman

Audrey inspects a film

British writer/director/producer/performer Emerald Fennell has helped to create a number of major film and television works, including The Crown, Call the Midwife, Vita & Virginia, Victoria, and Killing Eve. Aged 35, she already has earned a lengthy list of nominations and awards, including a recent Best Screenplay Oscar for Promising Young Woman which she also directed.

Promising Young Woman is the one of the most powerful films that I have seen in the past year. Starring Carey Mulligan, whose performance received an Oscar nod, this film follows the disturbing revenge tactics of a thirty-year-old medical school dropout, a woman whose life’s ambition and pleasure ended one tragic night years ago with a party gone wrong. Now this sharp-minded attractive woman lives at home with her parents and works at the counter of a coffee shop. She has no friends and doesn’t date.

From the git-go, Fennell establishes a negative impression of the male for purposes of this sad tale. The film opens in a bar. Men are dancing, and the camera is glued to their crotches and bottoms. These blokes are on the prowl. Then the camera settles on a slovenly drunken woman who can’t seem to straighten up to a sitting position. It is Mulligan as Cassie Thomas, our lead character.

When one of the guys takes the initiative to bring Cassie to his home in order to further ply her with drinks, she suddenly becomes sober. In fact, the drunkenness is a ruse. We soon learn that Cassie plays drunk every week to fool sex-hungry men, to teach them a lesson or do them harm. We also learn that her best friend, brilliant med student Nina Fisher, was a victim of a nasty sex crime perpetrated by a male medical student and witnessed by his mates. She was very drunk, and the male student took advantage of her state. This horrible event left Nina physically bruised and mentally damaged, apparently leading to her death. The school was notified and shoved the complaint under the rug.

Promising Young Woman could have been a violent thriller with little underlying substance. However, in the hands of Fennell, the story becomes multi-dimensional and the characters, who start out as very thinly constructed, become more authentic. To balance her character, Cassie opens up to a friendship with a doctor she used to know in med school. She visits a lawyer who was involved in the Nina case, and he is repentant so she leaves him in peace.

As the film rolls out, the focus of the viewer changes over from Nina’s destroyed life to focus on Cassie’s life. Who, in fact, is the intended title character, Nina or Cassie? Should the title of the film have been Promising Young Women?

However, Cassie’s revenge episodes become brutal. At times she is referred to as a psycho and also as a psychopath. Is she? Quite possibly, she is! She does bad things to people who do bad things. She scares people and plays with their lives. Finally, she takes to violent action.

As I watched the movie, and for a long time afterwards, one thought remained in the head of this viewer. It relates to the teachings, the warnings, that I heard as a teenager. Is a woman who has drunk to excess fair game to a sex-hungry man? That question may seem so out-of-date to some, but it remains in the minds of many people. We don’t judge drunken men unless they get into a car and drive or punch or knife a mate or rival. But a woman who has been drinking! Ach, she is seen by many, to this day, as a good for nothing, a someone who deserves what she gets.

Promising Young Woman is so strong a film that it might be the definitive statement on this subject. Much credit goes to Emerald Fennell for her writing and directing, and to Carey Mulligan for her fearsome portrayal of Cassie.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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