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(R)ape men
Something tells me that PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN is not on Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s ‘must see’ list. It’s a career highlight from actress Carey Mulligan as she attempts to serve justice to potential and bona fide sexual predators. Camus is impressed.
  “Often in these movies it’s a daughter or sister that people – mostly men – are avenging. But in my experience, some of the closest relationships are female friendships. And if you grew up with somebody, and you’ve been best friends since you were four, it can be the most important relation- ship of your life. But if you lose them, there’s no word for it.”
  Writer/Director Emerald Fennell, interview Sight and Sound May 2021


I am in no way trying to establish woke or feminist credentials with the following memory (and having said that, I’m aware that denying something in 2021 is tantamount to assuring people of the very opposite. How did we get there?). I had a friend in the 80s who invited me to a party. It was at a private location hosted by my friend’s company. It was a given that the guests at the party were expected to consume herculean amounts of alcohol. This party also featured a stripper, a woman who was hired to completely disrobe for the rowdy pleasure of men. I remember feeling so uneasy, I ducked out early. I didn’t and still don’t understand why a group of men have to behave with a Neanderthal mind-set. I’m not talking about what was or wasn’t acceptable forty years ago. I’m asking a question. What pitiable insecurity nestles at the heart of the over-promotion of masculine virility? Do these men actually have fun behaving like this? And why are some reduced to sexist imbeciles in the company of other men? Testosterone and alcohol can only be responsible for so much. From where does this mind-set originate?

Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman is the story a thirty-year old ex-medical student still grieving the loss of her best friend after she took her own life after having been raped in front of a group of men. In memory of her friend Nina, Cassie chooses to subsume her own life to promote an elaborate ritual of revenge on all men who would easily take advantage of a woman in a vulnerable state. Cassie’s name, short for Cassandra, evokes the Greek goddess who was granted the gift of prophecy but cursed never to be believed. That fits. The clichéd male stud has a little black book containing phone numbers of conquests. Cassie’s is pale blue and full of Christian names, men she’s shamed into temporary compliance. Acting significantly intoxicated in bars and nightclubs, Cassie is invariably targeted, and in the ruse of ‘taking her home’ she ends up in the bedroom of a total stranger who thinks that a near comatose woman is ripe for sexual exploitation. It’s only when the panties are halfway down her legs does Cassie sit up and with no trace of intoxication simply asks her attacker “What are you doing?” It’s a wonderfully brutal question to a man who’s been caught with her pants down. Cassie is playing a very dangerous game but the filmmakers sell the idea that being reported as a potential rapist is far scarier to the man than the threat of violence is to Cassie. If she films her attacker (wisely, she does not) then she is increasing the odds of violence if only in the act of him snatching and destroying her phone. She stays in control and in the aftermath of the evening’s encounter, she walks barefoot back home and, to a DeathbyRomy cover version of ‘It’s Raining Men’, she encounters three construction working hardhats playing the wolf whistling, erection-miming morons that have become beyond an old chestnut. They have no idea Cassie is adept at ‘whoah’ fare and she stands defiant, bean burger ketchup running down her arm and literally stares them out. “Can’t you take a joke?” bleats one of the morons. You feel the contemptuous reply coming off the dominant animal in this encounter like a potent pheromone.

But Cassie’s staged encounters with a random selection of opportunistic predators, while shallowly satisfying the revenge-lust inside of her, is merely the treading water of a grander plan. Complicit in the dismissal of her friend’s claims of rape and worse, dismissive of the heartbreak of her suicide, the fish are lining up for the frying pan. Cassie devises cruel but logical ways to exact some sort of penance for those that simply did not care about Nina. The biggest fish, Al Murray, a popular fellow medical student (and the name of a famous UK comedian which I hope is a coincidence) stays beyond Cassie’s reach. Poised to abort her mission after talking to Nina’s mother, she is given video evidence of the original attack and sees something that kick starts and energises her desire for revenge… Cassie is genuinely loved in the film but the only reflection of that support that is returned to her parents and her lover is that of a splintered heart. There’s a brief moment when we are led to believe that love might actually heal that painful condition but Cassie’s story needs a resolution. Nina’s champion is on a path compelled to balance the books.

The casting is a devious delight. Director Fennell deliberately cast actors whose previous roles had marked them out as ‘nice’ guys hoping to suggest that potential rapists are not moustache twirling, drooling psychopaths. They are just men. The whole idea of the ‘nice’ guy gets a stringent workout in the film (with an emphasis on the ‘gent’) and Bo Burnham as Ryan, Cassie’s determined boyfriend, is wholesome, respectful and patient. I will say no more – which of course probably says too much. Cassie’s parents are desperate for their daughter to come out of the fog of self-absorption but perhaps more so for the 30 year-old to move out of their house. A birthday present of a pink suitcase is a big, hollow way to send a message. Her father is played with a touching concern by an actor who’s had a varied and interesting career. I’m a fan of Clancy Brown and his turns in Starship Troopers, The Shawshank Redemption and Buckaroo Banzai always make an impression. He’s slipped into respectable older age with some aplomb. One of Cassie’s intended victims is the rapist’s lawyer Jordan Green and her visit to him and his subsequent behaviour is a shock but a welcome one. He is ironically the only man who disarms Cassie in the film and in so doing becomes a brief but conceivable physical threat. This part is beautifully judged and played by Alfred Molina who, like Clancy Brown, has had a very interesting acting career.

Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman

But the film rests squarely on the shoulders of Carey Mulligan and she bites down hard into the role inhabiting and exploring all its contradictions, vulnerabilities and confidence. While there is a delicious thrill to see bad people get some sort of comeuppance, Mulligan doesn’t give us the relish of revenge. It’s enough to make potential rapists aware of their moral elasticity and descent into life-altering behaviour, alas others’ lives not theirs. It doesn’t hurt to shock them out of their perverse entitlement. It’s also terrific to see this talented actress diversify her choices. Seeing her frail and so weakened in The Dig, it’s a glorious change of gear to see her as this physically robust avenging angel. Doctor Who’s Sally Sparrow has come a long way.

Another important element in the establishing of mood is the fine string-led score by Anthony Willis. While the film has moments of comedy, at the heart is a young woman’s needless death and the sorrow that invokes. This is reflected in the film’s extremely effective score. The selection of songs that permeate Cassie’s world are well chosen and for your listening pleasure there are two albums available. There is a cliché in film editing that if you do not notice the craft then it has done its job well. Frédéric Thoraval knows exactly when to stay well out of the limelight. The pacing the of the film was flawless and the two hours flew by. Looking at the awards the film has picked up (mostly centred on Mulligan and writer/director Emerald Fennell) it’s a small tragedy it didn’t find a wider audience while on release but then in Covid times even Christopher Nolan faltered. I don’t know how success is measured in non-theatrical terms but as long as films like Promising Young Woman get made and we have access to them, fine. But hell, I miss the big screen… Maybe it’ll get a second lease of life if it wins any major Oscars. It’s already nominated in the following categories, all well deserved… best actress, best director, best editing, best original screenplay and best film. I wish these promising young women (and man) the very best of luck.

Promising Young Woman is available now on Sky Cinema and NOW (with a Sky Cinema membership).

Promising Young Woman poster
Promising Young Woman

UK | USA 2020
113 mins
directed by
Emerald Fennell
produced by
Tom Ackerley
Ben Browning
Emerald Fennell
Ashley Fox
Josey McNamara
Margot Robbie
written by
Emerald Fennell
Benjamin Kracun
Frédéric Thoraval
Anthony Willis
production design
Michael T. Perry
Carey Mulligan
Bo Burnham
Alison Brie
Connie Britton
Adam Brody
Jennifer Coolidge
Laverne Cox
Clancy Brown
Alfred Molina
Christopher Mintz-Plasse

UK distributor
Universal Pictures
UK release date
16 April 2021
review posted
16 April 2021

See all of Camus' reviews