I am mystified by all the attention and awards that “Promising Young Woman” is receiving. The feature film directorial debut of British actress Emerald Fennell – so deliciously calculating as Camilla Parker Bowles in “The Crown” – stars Carey Mulligan as Cassie, a 30-year-old woman who still lives with her parents. Seems she dropped out of medical school after her best friend Nina was raped by a classmate and, after the school and legal system failed her, committed suicide. Cassie has now devoted her life to going to clubs and feigning drunkenness to get a man to take her home. She waits for them to take advantage of her and then reveals her sobriety.
- It’s like SURPRISE!
- But isn’t this entrapment?
- Isn’t this really sick behavior?
- Doesn’t Cassie need help?
- Of course not, the movie, whose moods and tones shift from one second to another, seems to be saying.
- Cassie also targets people in potentially soul destroying ways. People who she thinks should have stood up for Nina and didn’t. However, in one of the movie’s few moments of serenity and truthfulness, when Cassie visits Nina’s mother (Molly Shannon, a breath of fresh air) there is a suggestion that Cassie herself may have let Nina down on the night in question and that she should let the matter drop and get on with her life.
- She even goes so far as to actually kidnap the daughter of the school principal to teach her a lesson or two. There are no repercussions for this action but, the really egregious thing – Fennell is the writer as well as the director – is that the movie doesn’t even raise the question that there would be or should be.
- The nightclub scenes are also very troubling. Cassie dresses up in garish outfits with smeared makeup and ends up looking like one of the dolls that comes alive in Coppelia. So there she is “sloshed” and by herself at 2am and it’s
Closin’ time, ugly lights,
But (she’s) NOT a natural beauty unaffected
(My apologies to Prince)
- Who in their right mind would want to have anything to do with this creature other than to put her in a taxi and send her home. Not all men want to take advantage of an inebriated young lady. Taken straight, the movie is, well, sexist. The ironic thing is that Mulligan’s beauty has always been its unaffectedness combined with a fierce talent, making her one of the great actresses of today. Not here, though. This is probably her worst performance.
- Then there is also no mention of the fact that everyone is, to some degree, responsible for his or her own behavior. It’s intimated that Nina may have been drunk on the night in question. What happened to her was, of course, unpardonable but the fact that weas sentient beings, are responsible for keeping ourselves out of dangerous situations is never mentioned.
- Finally, because she handles the tone of the individual scenes so badly, there is no sense of how tongue-in-cheek Fennell is getting with all this and, after a while, you cease to care. The scenes between Mulligan and a would-be boyfriend, toward the end of the movie, are particularly problematic, and you get the feeling that Fennell is desperately searching for some sort of closure.
But there is a second part to this story. It’s a story in which the self righteous behavior of Cassie and Carey become blurred. When “Promising Young Woman” was screened at 2020 Sundance Film Festival, film critic Dennis Harvey, writing for Variety, suggested that, since the movie was originally a Margot Robbie project under the umbrella of her production company LuckyChapEntertainment, she might have been a better fit for the part of Cassie. Carey Mulligan did not take kindly to this and accused Harvey of misogyny. With the release of the film in December, Harvey’s initial review and Carey’s reaction to it became big news, so much so that Variety attached an apology to Carey at the top of the review. This is clearly insane. Have things become so politically correct that what actor or actress looks like in a movie is off limits? Aren’t looks part and parcel of the whole casting process? The search for Scarlett O’Hara?. Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. From what I can remember, it was Gene Tierney not Judith Anderson who played the eponymous heroine in “Laura”. It’s Jamie Dornan not Paul Giamatti (love you Paul!) in “50 Shades of Gray”.
Carey, a few years ago, you gave a magnificent performance in Thomas Vinterberg’s superb adaptation of “Far From the Madding Crowd” . In that movie you got to deliver one of Thomas Hardy’s great avant la lettre feminist lines:
“It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.”
Unfortunately, “Promising Young Woman” comes nowhere close to the economic brilliance of this statement. And I am saddened to think that the actress who mesmerized me in “An Education”, “Never Let Me Go” and “The Great Gatsby” could be so vindictive.
“Promising Young Woman” is available for streaming on HBOMax, Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV.