IIt is extremely timely material. Thematically, Emerald Fennell’s first feature film, Promising young woman, could have been distilled from pure pain, an amalgamation of the countless rape culture testimonies on sites such as Everyone is invited. But tonally, with its extravagant eyebrow and ironically lacquered manicure, this film feels oddly dated – a few decades out of step with current sensibilities. Had it not been for Carey Mulligan’s Cassandra, an avenging angel in bubblegum pink lip gloss, the pic might have lost her stripper heels long before she embarked on her divisional shock of a final act. Mulligan’s overwhelming disdain is a thing of beauty. If anyone wins awards for this generously and generously nominated film – it has five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, and has won six Bafta nominations, taking home two – it should be her.
And for a while at least, the writing is up to the quality of its interpretation. The opening of the film is a DayGlo explosion of fair catharsis. We meet Cassie fuzzy with alcohol, sprawled on a bench in the kind of bar where the alpha-bro afterwork team goes to drink. She’s a beautiful wreck, her tailor’s skirt rolled up, her hair and life unraveling. Three brash guys stare at her greedily, but it’s the most seemingly decent of them (Adam Brody) who walks up, with the offer to see her in her home safely. But danger comes in all shapes and sizes, and the next thing we know, the “nice guy” makes her take emetic pink kumquat liquor and mistreat her on her bed.
The scene then takes a joyful drift towards the unexpected. Cassie drops the drunken act and gets back to the point, fixing it with a glare that is the prelude to a count. Fennell cuts before seeing how the teachable moment unfolds. But the next blow joins Cassie in the harsh light of the next morning, disheveled but triumphant. She devours a hamburger. Maybe it’s ketchup dripping down his arm. And again, maybe it’s blood.
When she isn’t bringing her own justice to a seemingly endless stream of goosebumps, Cassie isn’t tied down. Having dropped out of medical school seven years earlier, for reasons that will become clear later in the film, she is barely 30 years old and still lives at home with her parents. She works mind-blowing shifts in a coffee shop, deftly fending off the promotion opportunity brokered by her well-meaning boss (Laverne Cox). However, her steadfast avoidance of any hope or future is derailed when Cassie meets Ryan (Bo Burnham), the first person in years who is able to find a loophole in her harsh cynicism.
The film attempts to capture the aftermath of a collision between grief and rage – there is a kinship with Three billboards, an equally polarizing image on the vigilante of a single woman. But grief – the exhausting, exhausting sadness that would make someone give up on their dreams and ambitions – and the kind of relentless, searing fury that sends Cassie night after night in search of retaliation are two very different energies. And Fennell, who cut his teeth while writing Kill Eve, struggles to find a convincing balance between the two.
It’s on a more secure footing with steering decisions that don’t require such fine tuning. The pick-and-mix candy color palette (with a particular emphasis on Biro blues and lipsticks) is arrogant and confrontational; underhand use of angel imagery (a cafe logo halo; wings formed from Cassie’s mother’s gruesome backdrop) is a playful kitsch detail that is needlessly hammered home later by use of The Morning Angel by Juice Newton on the soundtrack. Using a subverted version of Britney Spears’ Toxic; a piece dubbed disposable pop fluff, originally recorded by a woman who was constantly underestimated by predatory men, becomes a battle cry anthem. As the film’s undeniably powerful final scene suggests, there may be some justice in the world after all.