Ahead of anything else, Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman is a very *busy* film. So busy that it’s hard to know where to start when discussing it. Part revenge thriller, part romcom, part indie small town comedy, all wrapped up in a cautionary fable, Promising Young Woman has a lot to say, and some very imaginative ways to say it, but can sometimes find itself tripping over all its disparate elements, which don’t always form a coherent whole.
It all starts with an irresistible conversation starter of a premise. Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) is a woman on a mission, pretending to be blackout drunk at bars, waiting for an opportunistic guy to drag her back to his place, before snapping into vengeful action just as they cross the line into outright rape territory. These scenes are very well handled, walking a thin line between frightening and darkly funny, and it is deeply satisfying to see these men get their comeuppance, especially as Cassandra always gives them so many opportunities to change course before the grand reveal. The commentary on offer here is unflinching, showing exactly what men are willing to do when they think they can get away with it and offering a profoundly unsettling insight into just how many threats a woman can face on any given night out.
Fennell reveals Cassandra’s motivations very gradually, but it eventually becomes apparent that she is seeking a sort of cathartic revenge for the rape of her best friend at a drunken college party, which led to the both of them dropping out of college and her friend’s eventual suicide, all while the perpetrator walked free. It’s a dark and deeply sad story, one that can often feel at odds with the jokily heightened tone and a colour palette that’s all pinks and pastels.
Bridging the gap is a fantastic performance from Mulligan, bursting at the seams with rage, but also finding room to be very funny, grounding the more out-there sequences and keeping the film from flying completely off the rails. The whole thing is a bit of tonal jumble, especially once it shifts from the initial revenge scenes into schmaltzy romcom territory when Cassandra meets paediatric doctor Ryan (Bo Burnham), who seems to be an uncomplicatedly decent guy.
Promising Young Woman finds itself drifting during this section, though it is kept lively by a lot of likeable, funny performances – special mention to Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge as Cassandra’s rather daffy parents. In slowing down the pace, Fennell allows you a bit too much time to consider the plot’s rules and logistics, not all of which hold up to scrutiny, and it can be too easy to get bumped out of the experience. A third-act revelation kicks things back into gear, leading up to a thrilling and genuinely shocking climax that packs a real gut punch, even if doesn’t quite keep the courage of its convictions right at the very end.
Set to a sinister orchestral cover of Britney Spears’s ‘Toxic’ (the needle drops are great throughout, clearly influenced by Fennell’s time as showrunner on Killing Eve), this finale is admirably unpredictable, serving as a fitting cap to a film you’re very unlikely to get a handle on during your first viewing. Promising Young Woman doesn’t always know exactly the kind of film it wants to be, but Fennell directs with a swagger and flair (you’d never guess this was her debut film) that keep it mostly gripping even as the script’s cracks start to show.