Promising Young Woman review – Carey Mulligan ignites fiery #MeToo revenge tale

An electrifying lead performance papers over some of the more cartoonish cracks in a timely, darkly comic thriller about a woman on a mission

There aren’t many films at this year’s Sundance film festival that boast a premise quite as tantalising as that of Promising Young Woman, a candy-coloured yet darkly themed comic thriller. It goes like this: Cassie (Carey Mulligan) spends her weekends feigning close-to-blackout drunk behaviour in order to lure guys who see her as easy prey, to see how far they’re willing to go sexually with someone unable to provide consent. The ones who fail? The ones who continue to push despite the fact that she is pulling back? Well, something horrible awaits ...

It’s a canny setup, from the devious mind of Killing Eve show-runner Emerald Fennell who acts here as writer-director, and while we’ve seen films where women violently fight back against rape culture before (from Ms 45 to Dirty Weekend), we haven’t seen one that feels quite as female and quite as well-rooted in the conversations we’re still somehow having to have. Cassie’s modus operandi is designed to root out the bad guys but quite often they’re not the guys who think that they’re bad in the first place. Fennell smartly fills the film with recognisably comforting faces, from The OC’s Adam Brody to Superbad’s Christopher Mintz-Plasse to New Girl’s Max Greenfield, and there’s an uneasily well-orchestrated series of scenes where these familiar faces coerce her into sexual encounters in ways that feel insidiously, in their minds, different to rape. One of the film’s aces is showing us that sexual assault can come in an innocuous package, from an Oxford shirt-wearing, lives-with-his-parents, soft-speaking “nice” guy who can quickly flip into a destructive mode when he thinks the power is in his hands.

Watching Cassie regain this power over these odious men is a deliciously giddy thrill and, despite the subject matter, Fennell’s film is often extremely funny. It’s just that tonally things get a bit wobbly as she sometimes leans into broad, cartoonish excess whether it’s in some of the clunky, on-the-nose dialogue or the bright indie movie universe Cassie lives in (it’s a stylised movie without always being particularly stylish), which takes some of the power away from the scenes that do work so well, which there are plenty of. Scenes like Cassie tearing apart a college dean for her inability to protect and believe women or her surprisingly charming romance with a guy who might not be as toxic as the rest of them, there’s a lot here to recommend.

First and foremost is Mulligan who is sensationally good as Cassie, showing hitherto unseen comic abilities, the kind of performance that never relents, it just builds and builds until finally it explodes. She’s always been good but never this flooring and with her headlining almost every scene, the film is forever compelling as a result as it’s impossible to drag your eyes away from her, curious to know just what she’ll do next. There’s also a magnetic turn from Bo Burnham as her love interest and the pair have genuine chemistry, enough to fill an entirely separate romantic comedy.

The plot takes some darker turns as we learn Cassie’s backstory and while Mulligan is able to sell the more dramatic elements given her background, the severe tonal shifts don’t always work quite as well as she does. Fennell can’t seem to decide what kind of film she wants to make and it’s only because so much of it soars, that I found myself frustrated by the elements and decisions that threaten to crash the whole thing down. It remains afloat though, scrappily, as Fennell’s ruthless puncturing of straight-bro toxicity is sharp until the sure-to-be-divisive finale which is bravely and perhaps realistically dour with its worldview.

We might not even be midway through the festival but it’s hard to imagine a performance here that will burn through the screen with quite the same intensity as Mulligan’s furious and funny turn does here. The film around her has its flaws but she’s never been better, fulfilling her initial promise as a young actor and then some.

  • Promising Young Woman is showing at the Sundance film festival and will be released in the US and UK on 17 April


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