BY Philippa Snow in Opinion | 19 JAN 21

In ‘Promising Young Woman’ Revenge Is a Dish Served Lukewarm

Despite a brilliant performance by Carey Mulligan, the post-#MeToo thriller is an anti-climax 

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BY Philippa Snow in Opinion | 19 JAN 21

For at least the first two-thirds of Promising Young Woman, a new black-comedy thriller about sexual assault by Emerald Fennell, revenge proves to be a dish best served lukewarm. Cassie, played with gently simmering rage by a terrific Carey Mulligan, is a traumatized former med-school student who spends nights feigning unconsciousness in bars, tricking the kind of men who think of themselves as being white knights into revealing their true natures. Invariably, one of them picks her up and takes her home under the dubious pretence of saving her from being assaulted, and then – shocker of all shockers – turns out to be an aspiring date rapist in his own right. ‘I’m a nice guy,’ they all whine, as Cassie suddenly reveals herself to be entirely sober, sitting up and asking them exactly what they think they’re doing with the cool, schoolmarmish manner of a tax inspector catching out a thief. Rather than castrating or killing them, she tells them off, offering bullet points that ought to be self-evident to any decent person – that most bad men think they’re ‘nice guys’ up until they rape a woman, that no woman ever deserved to be raped because she happened to be drunk and that ‘nice guys’ who rape often end up being less ostracized and stigmatized than actual victims. This being done, she flees, adding another new name to the long list in her tattered notebook. Whether or not Cassie is naïve enough to think that hearing these things said might change the men’s minds is left ambiguous, though sometimes I wished she’d simply pulled a pen-knife out, instead.

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Promising Young Woman, 2020. Courtesy: Focus Features 

Politically, Fennell’s film feels like an adaptation of a c.2010s op-ed from Jezebel: sensibly feminist, but toothless, out-of-time. (Society, in 2020, has progressed past the need for any and all jokes about bad men loving David Foster Wallace.) Visually, it looks a little like a Tumblr gif set and the recent Harley Quinn film (Birds of Prey, 2020) had a baby – bright and sugary, but with hint of girlie-punk sedition, a dulled razorblade sequestered in a candy-coated apple. It has suffered, I believe, from being released within 12 months of Michaela Coel’s extraordinary I May Destroy You (2020), a rape comedy that felt dazzlingly contemporary in its sprawling scope. Still, when I think about what does work in the movie, I end up returning to the infamous review Variety later apologized for, in which a male critic sniffed that ‘Mulligan, a fine actress, seems a bit of an odd choice as this admittedly many-layered apparent femme fatale.’ The part, he figured, was a better fit for somebody like Margot Robbie: ‘one can (perhaps too easily) imagine the role might once have been intended for her,’ he insisted. What confused this man, I think, is one of the most genuinely interesting things about Promising Young Woman: not the fact that Carey Mulligan is insufficiently attractive to be raped – she is, I assure him, very pretty, and good looks at any rate do not have anything to do with whether or not one ends up being a victim of assault – but that she is no longer an obvious, wide-eyed ingénue.

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Birds of Prey, 2020. Courtesy: DC Films 

Mulligan is 35 and does not seem particularly interested in skewing younger, her face unparalysed enough to be screwed up into unflattering shapes when the scene calls for real emotion. Crucially, despite the fact she looks her age, the screenplay has her playing 30; adding to this dissonance, her character is often dressed in girlish clothes – pink fluff and gingham and long pigtails – the effect a layering of identities that unsettles rather than seduces. If we interpret this imbalance as deliberate, it becomes a clever way to signify the ugly, piquant irony of the film’s title: Cassie, worn down by her trauma and by the near decade that has passed since the event that ruined and radicalized her, is no longer light and unencumbered enough to seem ‘young’ or ‘promising’, only arrested, as if some part of her never left those final, fateful days of med-school. Cassie’s plan works precisely because, in the eyes of those who choose to take her home, being a woman – fuck the qualifying descriptors – is enough. If it proves to be ‘too easy’ for that male critic to imagine Margot Robbie being raped, it will also prove ‘too easy’ for most women to identify with Cassie: with her hopelessness, her helplessness, her rage.

It is possible that Promising Young Woman partly feels a little dated because many of us have been proselytizing about sexual assault – just as Cassie does when faced with yet another would-be rapist – for so long that we are beginning to feel that simply preaching is not an effective way to combat sexual violence. In the most generous reading, maybe this is what the dead-ended, anticlimactic scenes of Cassie endlessly performing stings on these young men are meant to signify. By the time the movie dog-legs in the last act, offering a resolution whose catharsis comes wrapped up in one last cowardly act of male brutality, viewers may end up feeling dulled and cheated, too.

Main image: Promising Young Woman, film still, 2021. Courtesy: Focus Features. 

Philippa Snow is a writer, based in Norwich, UK. Her reviews and essays have appeared in publications including ArtforumSight & SoundThe White ReviewThe New StatesmanThe Baffler, and The New Republic. 

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