Carey Mulligan delivers an honest, thought-provoking performance in Promising Young Woman, with an ending chilling enough to stay with you long after you’ve finished watching.
*Trigger warning: mentions of sexual assault, rape, and suicide.
I remember when I first watched the trailer for Promising Young Woman over a year ago and feeling a mix of emotions. First, shock. Next, the fear of people’s reactions. However, overall, I felt anticipation. Anticipation for a story, which for once could present the truthful experiences of women and sexual assault.
Setting a very familiar scene for women
Cassandra, the 29-year-old anti-social and avenging Promising Young Woman, is played by Carey Mulligan and she sets the scene for our story in a bar, where she is almost passed out drunk. A “helpful” businessman type offers to help get her home. He accompanies her into a taxi, but there is no real indication that she ever wanted help or needed it.
Within the first ten minutes of the film, this man takes Cassie to his flat and attempts to initiate sex, with no question or thought for her consent. You begin to cringe and squirm at the thought of seeing an experience all too familiar to women across the world. Before anything can take place, Cassie sits up, sober and awake, asking “what are you doing?”.
Caught red-handed, this man is the first of many non-consensual experiences that show how far a man will go, with no real consent or effort to gain it. You can’t help but question what would have happened if she hadn’t sat up at that moment.
The power and loss of friendship
The premise of the story lies in the narrative of Cassie’s friend, Nina. Never shown or seen in the film, we understand that Nina is Cassie’s best friend who died by suicide. This was after the trauma of being raped in medical school, filmed and not believed by her friends, peers or teachers.
It is Cassie who is left with the weight of navigating not only the loss of her best friend but an avenging guardian angel character. The goal is not just finishing medical school, but finding pockets of justice for her beloved friend.
With a book of names and a tally which she adds to every night, Cassie does not forget a face. From the trailer, you could interpret the film as a vengeful thriller, full of gore and a serial-killing female protagonist, which equally would be a thrilling film to watch. However, this is not what this film is.
By the second time Cassie is taken home, you realise her aim is not to hurt, abuse or even kill these men. Her weapon is her sobriety and the shock and humiliation felt by these men when they realise what they were about to do. She uses these moments as a tool for self-reflection. She provokes the question, is this uncomfortable and chilling moment enough to make men reflect on their behaviour that has led up to this moment?
‘Promising Young Woman’ 👏🏻 pic.twitter.com/zLtA94Pw1W
— Zoe Alison Murrell (@zoeamurrell) April 27, 2021
Tracking down the ghosts of her past
Once she tracks down Nina’s rapist, Al Monroe (played by Chris Lowell), her goal is to get to him in time for his over-indulgent, testosterone-charged bachelor party. She finally confronts the man who set her off on this path of ache, mourning and justified anger.
Before this, she encounters the ghosts of her past – those who wronged her and Nina. She questions why everyone remembers Al as a talented, charming and smart medical student but nobody can remember Nina.
Women are not exempt from this, as Cassie confronts one of her old medical school friends, who denied Nina’s story. To make matters worse, the Dean of her old school claims she investigated and took Nina’s allegations very seriously. despite not even remembering her name.
A masterpiece of beauty, peace and pain
This is a directorial debut for Emerald Fennell, known for executive producing Killing Eve and playing Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown. It is a dive straight into a partnership of excellent filmmaking and unfiltered storytelling.
The storyline is a compelling and worthy Oscar winner. It is the reason why people will be talking about this film long after its release. However, for fans of cinema and filmmaking, Promising Young Woman is a cinematic tribute to the early 2000s. It encapsulates the beauty of female solidarity and finding beauty and peace in the wake of pain.
Within the first 20 minutes of the film, you realise Fennell is genuinely passionate about her art. She creates a world in which you’re not just watching Cassie, but you’re going along with her in the narrative. You can feel the pain and anguish in every scene. By the end, you crave the justice Cassie has been searching for day in and day out.
Pastel nails, Britney Spears and a wardrobe of dreams, the final cut of this film is a meticulous mood board of pictures, ideas and themes bought to life through Cassie’s world. You’re immersed in these circles and narratives, and hang onto every word.
There are quotable scenes almost every 10 minutes and you can’t help but shout out in agreement at the screen. This is what women have been saying for years, and it is now being articulated in a cinematic space.
An ending that divided viewers
The ending of the film has left people polarised. Some were happy and some were disappointed in where the narrative finishes. Without giving too much away, my take was that the movie finished perfectly. Shocking, chilling and leaving you in disbelief, the end follows the consistent arc Fennell has created from the very first scene.
The ending feels disappointing because life is disappointing. The situation in which Cassie is living is not a vengeful utopia, but a grieving and healing space where she is coming to terms with the realities of suicide and sexual assault.
The end presents the realities of the abuse against women. This is not fictional, it is an everyday reality for women around the world. According to a survey by UN Women UK, “among women aged 18-24, 86% said they had been sexually harassed in public spaces”.
To clarify, this is not to suggest that all men are predators or men do not get sexually harassed or abused. This is not what the film is suggesting either. However, if your response to female sexual assault or abuse is “not all men”, then you are missing the point of the issue and the film.
It is not activism if the only time you speak up for male sexual abuse or assault is when women are speaking about their experiences. There must be an acknowledgement of both issues that concern men and women, but one should not be at the expense or erasure of the other. We must live in a society where both are condemned and victims of abuse are supported, not exploited to make your point in a debate or discussion.
There are some films that stay with you forever and make you think and #PromisingYoungWoman is one of them. I will never get the scene at the end out of my head 😔👏 #MustWatch pic.twitter.com/NLEFhktlWK
— Nics (@nics42) May 9, 2021
Fennell did not make this film to comfort you or to provide you with a utopian ending. This is meant to make us reflect, make us learn and make us uncomfortable. There are no caricatures or overtly threatening men in the film to make it obvious what’s going to happen next. Perhaps that is the most frightening part of the story as it accurately portrays the society we live in.
Predators and abuse do not have one face or one appearance. They are in all places. They are people we know and they are strangers. As a society, we must condemn and stop abuse wherever we see it. We must also support the people who are living through abuse or experience any kind of sexual assault.
Cassie’s ending is a sobering, unfiltered depiction of the experience of women who have to think ahead of every situation, every eventuality and every outcome of leaving the house, let alone entering a party and being the only woman. It is a hard pill to swallow for every viewer, but something that can only change once we acknowledge it.
With the support of an outstanding ensemble cast, a powerful script, a power-house lead and a talented director, payback, justice and reclaiming our power has never looked so promising.
Promising Young Woman is available to watch on Sky Cinema.