Dark, Poignant, Funny and Full of Style; I Promise You’ll Be Blown Away
Emerald Fennell’s feature film debut Promising Young Woman is a tantalizingly dark yet comedic delve into the victim blaming culture of female sexual abuse. Staring Carey Mulligan as Cassie, a woman in her 30’s that can’t let go of the events of the past, Promising Young Woman subverts your expectations at every turn making this thriller comedy a tasty twisty turn of events that starts conversations and leaves you wanting more.
If you’ve looked at the past projects Fennell has been a part of you will notice that the combination of dark subject matter and humour are a consistent factor. As Executive Producer and writer on Killing Eve as well as in her own short film Careful How You Go, which also gets a nod in this film, both have similar undertones as Promising Young Woman. Being able to laugh through moments of the film acts as a release to counteract when those sinister violins start underpinning Cassie’s hand notching another tally strike in her notebook. And yet is what she’s doing really that sinister?
This film is a master at subverting expectations and whilst it successfully managed to trick me with most of it’s twists I also wish I hadn’t seen the trailer before watching the film as it does spoil a bit of the later content. Going in blind would add an elevated level of tension throughout the whole film that I only got to experience mildly due to my knowledge of footage in the trailer. Despite this Fennell manages to succeed in providing a perfect amount of underlying discomfort; one that doesn’t push the audience over the edge into not wanting to see what happens next because all I wanted to do was see what happened next.
The aesthetics of this film are also expertly crafted. The production design leaves nothing in the frame by accident with each shot feeling purposefully designed, each scene reflecting the tone of the moment in colour, costume and set before the characters even open their mouths. The cinematography also works hand in hand to elevate the tension the entire way through often leaving characters teetering on the edge of the frame one wrong move away from being cut off at the neck both physically and metaphorically. Every department in this film was working harmoniously with the story creating the ebbs and flows necessary for a film that so seamlessly blends comedy with thriller.
But I cannot review this film without mentioning how well it tackles it’s stories subject matter. Promising Young Woman holds a magnifying glass to the impact of sexual assault on not just the victim but the people around them. It opens the door wide to the systemic processes in place that favour the perpetrators, the social attitudes that have pervaded our culture, and the unwillingness of society to do anything about it. Above all this film is about accountability and not just for those who have committed an assault but everyone that that assault then touches be they man or woman.
The justification for Cassie’s actions throughout the film is in the system that refuses to help rectify the wrongs of the past, which makes empathising with her very easy. As a society we know that this goes on and yet we choose to ignore it and blame women for their own assault constantly. “She should have been more careful”, “we were just kids” , “I can’t ruin the boys future.”
This film challenges the “not my problem” mentality as it makes even those who haven’t taken part reassess what they are doing to make it stop. It’s about responsibility and how we decide to act, even as a bystander. What would you do in that situation? What can you do to help fix the system? And yet the film presents these hard hitting quandaries to us in such an entertaining way that it doesn’t feel like you’ve been asked to contemplate a bigger issue until after the credits roll.
Promising Young Woman is a masterful expose of a very important issue affecting women in todays society whilst also functioning as a highly entertaining film. The remixed pop soundtrack, the bubblegum-like colour scheme, the clever writing, the purposefully crafted frames all subtly work together to tell a story that makes you laugh but also makes you think.
Promising Young Woman hits Australian cinemas January 1 2021