Promising Young Woman

play article
Subscribers can listen to this article
Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman.
Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman.
Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features


Promising Young Woman


Sunday, 7 November at 20:30 on M-Net (DStv 101)


5/5 Stars


Traumatised by an event in her past, Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) is nearly thirty years old, still living at home, still staying with her parents, and no interest in friends or romantic relationships. She is far too busy, you see, with her one, singular obsession: revenge.


Promising Young Woman is the sort of film that you absolutely want to go in knowing as little as possible. As such, though I will be avoiding spoilers even more than usual, if you want to know nothing going in, feel free to read the rest of the review only after seeing the film. Before you go, though, I can say that it is a) excellent and b) not, in any way shape or form, the generic revenge thriller that my – or others' – short synopsis might suggest.  

Still with me? Back for my thoughts? Good. There's lots to say.

For a start, it's been a while since I've seen a film as fresh and unexpected as Promising Young Woman and I almost opted not to see it. It has been in cinemas in this country for a little while now (and VOD in other countries too) and when looking for something new to watch, its psychedelic poster may have caught my attention but its generic "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned" plot made it seem like it fitted squarely into a genre of which I'm not a huge fan: the revenge thriller. One Death Wish was plenty, thanks.

Fortunately, I happened to catch the very funny Max Greenfield on an episode of Conan promoting the film (with a clip that didn't even feature him!) and not only did he and Conan O'Brien sell me on the film being more than it first appeared, the fact that Greenfield – who most of us know as Schmidt from the perennially underrated sitcom, New Girl – was joined by other comic luminaries like Alison Brie, Sam Richardson, Bo Burnham, Adam Brody, Jennifer Coolidge, Molly Shannon and, McLovin' himself, Christopher Mintz-Plasse only further piqued my interest.

And, indeed, the fact that these comic actors appear in the film in mostly serious, often threatening roles is unquestionably a large part of why a film that should be rote and bland on paper quickly reveals itself to be audaciously original, unpredictable and off-kilter. But they're hardly the only thing.

British writer/director/actress (in only a cameo here but you may know her as Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown), Emerald Fennell, makes her feature-film directorial debut with this film and it's an astonishing breakthrough. She has already earned plenty of acclaim as an actress and as the writer of most of Killing Eve season 2 but this, her very first film, has put her near the top of the "promising new directors" list. You would almost think its title was about her herself.

Take that decision to fill the film with supporting actors that are all but entirely known for comedy. The genius here isn't that she gets comic actors to work in "serious" roles – comedy actors are frequently excellent at drama too – but that she effectively gets many of them to play the sort of characters, they're most known for but applies the slightest twist to them that they quickly go from endearing to sinister.

Max Greenfield, for example, is effectively playing Schmidt here, but a version of Schmidt that is actually the repugnant douchebag that he only pretends to be on New Girl (Schmidt, of course, is just a massively insecure sweetheart). Mintz-Plasse too is basically doing McLovin' from Superbad, but instead of playing him as an awkward but blustering teenager, he plays him as an awkward but blustering creep. Casting professional badass and frequent bad-guy-of-choice, Clancy Brown, as our anti-heroine's loveable dad, meanwhile, also has an unsettling quality but in the opposite direction.    

Carey Mulligan, Laverne Cox and the always terrific Alfred Molina are exceptions that prove the film's rule of counter-intuitive casting.   

This general uncertainty and a sense that something isn't quite right runs through the entire film and far more than any specific plot twist, it frequently becomes difficult to know exactly what genre of film you're watching, let alone where it's going. It is, variably and sometimes all at once, a dark comedy, a revenge flick, a thriller, a romance, a tragedy, a socio-political satire, and a character drama.

I often criticise films for tonal inconsistency, but Fennell makes it look easy. It's not just a brilliant technical trick, though, but is one that is rooted in one emotional theme that runs throughout the film. Regardless of whether the film is being thrilling, scabrously funny, or jaw-droppingly dark, it is always fundamentally about the same thing: how the effects of trauma reverberate far beyond their initial causes. Promising Young Woman is a very smart film and a very entertaining film but perhaps most of all, it is a very heartfelt film with something serious to say.

And at the centre of all of it, of course, is Carey Mulligan. She hasn't had a role like this in a while so you'd be forgiven for forgetting how good she is, but she is simply incredible here. Her wry, vulnerable, angry and funny performance navigates the film's frequent shifts in tone with seeming effortlessness, and the wealth of emotion that she keeps just behind her character's cool exterior grounds every moment of the film in a raw humanity, no matter how insane it gets. And it does get insane.

Admittedly, despite the general lightness of touch, it's not always the easiest film to watch. There's nothing gratuitous and, for that matter, particularly explicit or violent about it, but the subject matter at the film's centre is tough, and Fennell does treat it with unflinching honesty and directness. It will also, no doubt, piss off those who deny the existence of a certain form of masculinity that is toxic to its core (who are, let's face it, mostly hard-right-leaning men) and will see the film as an attack on all men. But, honestly, this isn't about political correctness, identity politics and misandry  - as a centre-left liberal, I am, to say the least, wary of all three - and if you are male and take offence at the way most (but not all) of the men are portrayed in the movie, you may need to do a bit of soul searching of your own.

For everyone else, though, I cannot recommend Promising Young Woman enough. And that it, no doubt, will be offensive to exactly the right kind of person only works in its favour.


Promising Young Woman is now showing in cinemas

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24