Emerald Fenenell's 'Promising Young Woman'

Published: Mon 3 May 2021 05:07 PM
Promising Young Woman
“You were a little worse, or the better, for wine. And there are rules about that.” - Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story, to James Stewart, who assured her that nothing happened after they spent an inebriated evening together.
British actress, screenwriter, and author Emerald Fennell's Promising Young Woman opens with a scene that shows her protagonist apparently indulging in precisely the sort of self-destructive, alcoholic behaviour displayed by recent anti-heroines like Rachel in The Girl on the Train. The vital difference is that not only is she traumatised by a damaging experience in her past, but also determined to extract revenge. While future offerings such as the Harvey Weinstein-inspired drama The Assistant are sure to provide plenty of similarly gutsy women who decide they will no longer be victims, Fennell's movie succeeds because she is capable of doing much more than simply articulate a woke, 'Times Up' message.
The Guardian needed not one, but three reviews to do justice to Fennell's unsettling approach, which indicates exactly how ambiguous and controversial its message really is. While Peter Bradshaw simply observed that “This ingenious rape-revenge satire is about a society that thinks what a shame it would be if the career of a promising young man were ruined over some alleged incident in which both parties were probably drunk,” Emma Brockes suggested “the title inverts the trope of the 'promising young man,' a phrase that crops up, with depressing frequency, in the defence of college-aged men accused of rape. [Promising Young Woman] has divided critics. It is thin, didactic, preachy, reductive, uneven and flippant towards victims of sexual assault. Alternatively, it is a thrilling and cathartic expression of post-#MeToo female rage towards a problem that never goes away.” Part of the delayed appeal of Promising Young Woman is due to the long pipeline of film development that was further elongated by the pandemic (after a much-hyped debut at the Sundance Film Festival, Focus Features pushed its wide release date back from April to Christmas Day), and the hyper-velocity of the internet culture where 'conversations' both balloon outward and burst open like septic blisters on a daily basis.
Brockes suggested that one reason the movie has been criticised is because Fennell's protagonist traduces the status of victims by doing bad things in pursuit of rough justice, which suggests they must be morally unimpeachable in order to be worthy of our sympathy. Fennel was hand-picked as show runner for the second season of Killing Eve by Phoebe Waller-Bridge to deliver a succession of stylishly amoral assassinations, but her handling of the tale of the hit woman and the obsessive sleuth hunting her down never achieved the kind of blockbuster ratings enjoyed by the first series. Fennell has found another violent leading lady, but one on a less random and more ethically nuanced mission. Although it shares some of the more cartoonish aspects of a Quentin Tarantino production, his trademark smirk and swagger never climaxes in a comic bloodbath. She is uninterested in exploring the varieties of PTSD manifested after a sexual assault, nor doe she provide a realistic template for retributive action. “The heroine seeks merely to redress an imbalance of perception,” wrote Brockes, “one that in spite of huge protest movements never quite goes away: that sexual assault is excused to the point of no-big-deal when the victim is intoxicated; that promising young men are somehow more important than promising young women.”
Not all men are guilty and appearances can be deceptive in Fennell's universe. Adrian Horton thought her ”acidic dark comedy which coats an incendiary rape revenge plot with a pastel sheen, runs an alluring, looping trap: Cassie, a singularly obsessed character played with singularly impressive depth by Carey Mulligan, pretends to be near-passed-out drunk at a bar, plays along to a skeevy man’s predatory machinations, then flips the switch when he begins to sexually assault a woman he believes is too drunk to notice or care ... The first time Cassie pulls the trap ... it’s not quite shocking - if you’ve seen the trailer, you know her revenge scheme - but given that it's The OC heartthrob Adam Brody as the aw-shucks predator, Mulligan’s archly calibrated facade drop is an enticing and unnerving jolt.” The Guardian critic who saw Promising Young Woman at Sundance duly noted: “One of the film’s aces is showing us that sexual assault can come in an innocuous package, from an Oxford shirt-wearing, soft-speaking ‘nice’ guy who can quickly flip into a destructive mode when he thinks the power is in his hands.”
Female critics were generally positive, with Hannah Woodhead writing, “From her work on Killing Eve to her short film Careful How You Go, Fennell has always demonstrated a fascination with the grey spaces of morality, and her debut feature is no exception - it’s a meticulous, candy-coloured fairy tale with a blistering central performance from Carey Mulligan that’s quite unlike anything she’s done before. Provocative and recalcitrant, it’s sure to spark plenty of debate, but also resonate with anyone who has seen their life (or, indeed, the life of someone they love) changed forever by rape.” Other critics were less convinced by Mulligan's malignant siren, but remain intrigued - “Like everything here,” the Hollywood News reviewer declared, “[her] turn is skillful, entertaining and challenging, even when the eccentric method obscures the precise message.”
There are certainly buckets of ambiguity in the film's opening half with more than enough unexpected narrative shifts and wide variety of tone to entertain.Is it blood or ketchup dripping onto Cassie's white shoes and nurse's outfit? When Alfred Molina's brief (and for some reason uncredited) cameo as a nefarious attorney expresses regret for his earlier actions, which have clearly left him as damaged as his victims, Cassie forgives and lets him go. There is another kind of retribution, some off-camera humiliation to which men will submit in return for Cassie leaving them uninjured, and she keeps a mysteriously colour-coded scorecard in her childhood bedroom that is cleverly echoed by the titles for the film's five acts.
Fennell's feature debut certainly has many refreshing strengths, not least of which is Mulligan’s pre-cut, white-bread femininity, with her feathery bangs, rainbow nails, and unnerving preference for a bubblegum pink wardrobe. There are many recent and deep-rooted hooks upon which audiences can hang their outrage, stretching back from Weinstein, to Daisy Coleman, and Brock Turner, the Stanford University student convicted of sexual assault in 2016. Despite his conviction, Turner's defense attorneys referred to him as a "promising young man,” as were the 2012 Steubenville high school gang members who recorded their rapes on cellphones in crimes similar to the unseen tragedy at the heart of Promising Young Woman, which boils an archetypical assault story down to its starkest shades - vigilante and bad, unchanged people, a woman whose trauma subsumes her. The second time Cassie shocks and condemns another louche loser (played by Superbad’s Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the initial thrill of exposure begins to wane. When Cassie targets her old medical school dean (Connie Britton), who continues to turn a blind eye to earlier transgressions, her annihilating obsession (the reduction of her character to the long shadow of the worst thing that has ever happened to her) has a tart bite and dark fatalism that is deliberately disquieting. But what insights are gained from such exposure? What’s left when all the incandescent anger boils away? Unmasking proves to be a limited thrill.
Immensely aided and abetted by Michael Berry''s inventive production design and Linda Kioczcowski's colourful palette, Fennell's tightly constructed and well-worked screenplay richly deserves its Oscar. Mulligan is demurely brilliant as the aptly-named Cassandra, a thirty-year-old who still lives with her parents and works in a coffee shop after her career was tragically abridged at college. This med-school dropout is now an emotionally wounded sociopath who spends her evenings in clubs, pretending to be falling-down drunk in order to entice men to take her back to their place. Cassie has a macabre surprise in store for such men. Her cleverly orchestrated campaign of revenge involves going to bars and faking blackout-level intoxication, until another 'nice guy' offers to escort her home. Like so many other men meticulously counted in her notebook, the predator in the opening scene takes Cassie back to his apartment for 'one last drink,' starts to assault her apparently half-comatose and corpse-like body, then promptly has a heart attack when she suddenly snaps back into icy sobriety and asks him directly what the hell he's doing. She doesn’t need a weapon, only exquisite timing.
Cassie’s dangerous vocation makes us all feel uncomfortable, whether triggering a convulsion of indignation or some queasy scruples about entrapment. Surely there are some genuinely nice guys, who genuinely want to see her safely home, guys who might now leave such a victim to her fate because they don’t want to risk looking predatory? This is part of Cassie’s nihilist malice. She is the dark avenger unconcerned with fairness, who may in fact induce her victims to try sexual assault for the first time in their lives. The narrative unrolls in a deft series of switchbacks, to reveal a profound aggression that was always lurking just below the impeccable surface. Anthony Willis’ ruthlessly effective musical score subtly underlines both Cassie's horror and her grief.
When she sat down to write the screenplay, the first scene Fennell imagined was a woman lying on a bed while someone takes her knickers off. She drunkenly asks "What are you doing?", then repeats the question in a completely sober manner. Fennell began this idea and the scene ended up in the film's final cut, in which the words "rape" and "sexual assault" are never heard. Fennell said that Mulligan was nervous about having to act drunk (a notoriously difficult actorly task), until she reminded her that she wasn't actually acting drunk, but rather playing a character that was sober and just pretending to be drunk, which helped Mulligan relax into the role. Chris Lowell said Fennel was very playful while filming the scenes between him and Cassie, reminding the actors that they were making a comedy and did not need to take it too seriously - "I think having that levity as we were shooting the sequences was a much-needed respite from the content itself. It made three really difficult days of shooting much more manageable, and I think also, frankly, kept our mental health in check in a really wonderful way." Actor Max Greenfield said that it was initially difficult for him to understand the tone of the script, but was convinced to take the role after meeting with Fennell - "I was so blown away. She was so focused and had such a clear vision of what this thing was supposed to be and really executed everything on every level … I just can't say enough about her."
Once she had secured the lead role, Mulligan was immediately sent a musical playlist by Fennell that set the mood for the film. Britney Spears' Toxic is featured twice, including the scene when Cassie approaches the bachelor party when the music playing is an instrumental version on violin. Fennell is a big Spears fan, but at the same time she wanted to rebel against a dismissive notion that female pop culture is "guilty pleasure," and therefore made it an integral part of the audiovisual side of the film. In the script, the film's closing song was to be The Walker Brothers' No Regrets, but Fennell eventually settled on Juice Newton's Angel of the Morning. The song Once Upon a Time There Was a Pretty Fly is from The Night of the Hunter (1955), which Cassie's parents watch earlier in the film. The book Cassie reads while working at the coffee shop is titled Careful How You Go, which is a nod to Fennell's 2018 short film of the same name, starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
When Fennell asked her father-in-law, a retired cop, how long would it take to smother someone, he replied “two and a half minutes”, which is why the final smothering scene seems so excruciatingly long (Mulligan had to recreate her muffled sounds during the suffocation using ADR). Fennell said she originally planned to write a more conventionally cathartic ending, but while writing the bachelor party scene she realized it would not fit - "I cannot imagine being in a room with a man, threatening him, where it plays out in any different way, no matter how much we want it to be the case." The film was supposed to conclude with Cassie's death, but when Fennel discussed the ending of the film with the producers, they pointed out that somebody as meticulous as Cassie would not put herself in such a dangerous situation without a contingency plan, which leads directly to the final denouement.
Fennell (who briefly appears as a cosmetics consultant on YouTube, giving tutorials in how to achieve blowjob lips) referred to the entire cast as "an embarrassment of riches," adding that one advantage to filming in LA was that she was able to entice many of her first choice actors to sign on for small but significant roles, since it would involve no travel and only a brief time frame. It took only twenty-three days to complete principal photography and the film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Editing, but only won Best Original Screenplay for Fennell, who described herself as "very pregnant" during filming and gave birth three weeks after production wrapped. In her emotional acceptance speech, Fennell thanked her family and young son, who arrived “two weeks after shooting, thank God. I was crossing my legs.” She is the first woman to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Director for a debut film, along with Chloé Zhao for Nomadland, marking the first time two women have been nominated in the category in the same year, and Fennell and Zhao the second and third women to be nominated for writing, directing, and producing in the same year (the first was Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation, twelve years ago). This film also makes Fennell the first British woman to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Director.
A few months before the film debuted at Sundance, a preview screening gauged the audience reaction and at one point a fight broke out between one viewer who was very angry about the scene, while another told him to leave if he didn't like it. Fennel commented, "It was quite visceral and that was quite shocking because obviously I wanted to make a film that was thought-provoking that people talk about, but I wasn't expecting that."
Born in London and educated at Marlborough College and Oxford, Fennell is more familiar as an actress to fans of The Crown and Call the Midwife, in which she played two diametrically opposed characters - Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and the closet lesbian Patsy. She has not just stepped behind the camera as director, but also re-worked an existing screenplay to reflect contemporary attitudes and puncture common assumptions. At the Sundance film festival, where Promising Young Woman premiered, critics were bemused by its tonal shifts from light humour to macabre tragedy. Little White Lies suggested that “Fennell’s pitch-black comedy is hard to stomach at times, but a piercing, vital addition to the growing canon of films that allow women to speak for themselves rather than through the gaze of men.”
Fennell comes from a family she has described as “full of wizards and circus performers,” but her father is Theo Fennell, a multi-millionaire jeweller and maker of such prestigious sporting trophies as those handed out to Lewis Hamilton on the Formula One podium. The world inhabited by Camilla Parker Bowles may not be Fennel’s own, but it is certainly closer than that of Patsy in Call the Midwife. Her upper crust vowels and jolly hockey-sticks demeanour might qualify herfor the title of the next Miranda Hart - and like Hart, in an attempt to distract and amuse her followers during lockdown, Fennell started tweeting from her childhood bedroom. On “Day three of self-isolation,” she wondered, “Is this how our civilisation ends? Wearing moisturiser that expired in 2008, the dregs of a bottle of Gucci Envy and fcuk t-shirt?”
Unsurprisingly perhaps, the multi-talented actress/writer/director is also a huge Roald Dahl fan and, like Dahl at his best, clearly loves to leaving audiences unnerved and off-kilter with her distrust of easy assumptions and simplistic conclusions. The kind of shock that such an approach provides was an essential element in herKilling Eve scripts, but it is also evident in her series of children's books (starting with the spooky Shiverton Hall), and continues through to the mordant grimness of her 2015 novel Monsters, which concerns two odd children who encounter a smattering of murders in the otherwise idyllic country town of Fowey in Cornwall. Acclaimed novelist William Boyd was so impressed when he reviewed it for the New Statesman that he described it as “a tremendous, destabilising work of fiction, infusing the mundane with eerie and unsettling darkness. It is written, moreover, in a remarkable tone of voice.”
On the DVD director's commentary, Fennell stated that she envisaged Cassie as an "avenging angel" and her movie proliferates with subtle visual clues and nuanced touches, such as the selfie of two girls at a bar on Corfu's Glyfada Beach. The main products on the island are kumquat liqueur (first referenced in the opening scene) and ginger beer (as in the Hotel Saint Joan). When Cassie confronts Ryan, the skull of the skeleton model in his office visibly separates them, simultaneously symbolising the death of their relationship and foreshadowing her ultimate nemesis. There are also multiple shots in which Cassie sits in front of her bedroom headboard, with the white frame jetting out behind her like angel wings. An odd piece of artwork on the coffee shop walls makes her look like she has a saint-like nimbus, the round light on the ceiling of the restaurant resembles a similarly angelic penumbra floating over her head, and the final song before the end credits is Juice Newton's Angel of the Morning". Such visual intelligence and flair shows Fennell has a firm grasp of her chosen medium and clearly has a lot more to offer.
howard davis
Scoop Arts Editor
Educated at Cambridge and UCLA; worked on several major Hollywood feature films and as a Kundalini Yoga instructor in Los Angeles; currently enjoying life in Wellington.
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