Dir: Emerald Fennell
Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress, Best Film Editing.
The directorial debut of Emerald Fennel, who most will know as the actress who plays Camilla Parker Bowles on Netflix’s The Crown, and potentially as the show runner for season two of Killing Eve, stars Carey Mulligan as Cassie, a woman on the edge. Following a traumatic incident involving her friend Nina from her medical school days, Cassie has been seeking a form of retribution (seemingly every evening for years) against every man she can attract by pretending to be drunk in nightclubs and entrapping them into taking physical liberties with her before revealing she isn’t drunk after all and then giving them a very brief telling off before leaving. If this doesn’t sound like the film you expected from the trailer, or indeed doesn’t sound like a good idea for a film at all, it’s because it isn’t. Fennel’s Promising Young Woman is a messy affair that seems to have little idea of what its aims are, and even less idea of how to achieve them.
Far from being a clarion call for female empowerment in 2021, Promising Young Woman represents the death throes of ‘girlboss feminism’ and a potentially troubling insult to survivors of sexual assault. I will return to some of the movie’s bizarrely handled attempts at social commentary, but chiefly when reviewing cinema, the foremost concern (I always believe) should be with the craft on display, the skill of the movie maker to make a movie. Promising Young Woman is a litany of disasters on this front with its stilted cinematography, student film level lighting, static direction (it was shot in only 23 days and it shows) and a woeful script that has plot holes so big you could drive a bus through them. At times the dialogue is horrifyingly unnuanced and often makes little or no sense when arbitrarily spilling out of actors mouths as the script attempts to ride its characters wildly inconsistent set of central motivations like a drunken fish attempting to ride a bucking bronco. In fact the characters are so thinly realised as to make them seem non-existent. The film’s best lines go to Bo Burnham who elicits the odd chuckle, but only in the service of setting up one of the most nauseatingly obvious and underwhelming ‘plot twists’ in cinema history.
Despite its mission to subvert the revenge genre, everything in Promising Young Woman is brutally predictable right from the off once you are aware this isn’t really a genre film of the type it advertises itself to be. You can read the hollowness of the film in two ways, either the film really is just a very poorly made (possibly forgivable for a first time director) piece of half baked cinema, or it’s an attempt at deliberate stylistic choice to make some sort of statement. In other words, the film is either meant to directly reflect reality to a strong degree, or is an augmented hyper reality where anything is possible. No doubt Promising Young Woman uses current talking points around sexual assault and male behaviour towards women to deal with important issues that need highlighting. Sadly its use of these talking points ranges from the bizarrely trite to the distasteful and even downright offensive towards survivors of sexual violence given the level to which Cassie and Nina are women who are solely defined by one singular awful incident, an incident that becomes their only identity. If Promising Young Woman is made to be reflective of the reality of society it fails woefully with one weirdly unrealistic hastily botched together scenario after another. If we are to believe this is a hyper reality then why is the film so astonishingly afraid of itself?
It’s very difficult to discuss Promising Young Woman without major spoilers, so I will attempt to skirt around some of the big plot points to a degree (some of which follows may be regarded as spoilers) but firstly lets say the film very clearly sets itself up as a sort of revenge thriller towards men, one might go so far as to say it is intended to have a horror element. But the film has no bite whatsoever, mostly it amounts to a stern, rather flat telling off from Cassie that the male characters seem bafflingly scared by. Assuming the film’s ‘ominous’ score wasn’t magically playing in the world of the characters at the time then there is zero reason to assume they would have the type of reaction they do. On top of this tame treatment of asshole men, the worst actual consequences for people in the film are reserved exclusively for its female characters. If a male director had been responsible for this film it would be widely understood as horribly misogynistic, despite the director being a woman I do think a strong case for this film being overtly misogynistic can still be made. Worse still there is nothing from the film’s plot about these men who get away scot-free (in some cases even being completely absolved by the central character) and the fact only women suffer the worst of the movies consequences to suggest it is a statement about how this is often true in real life. It can by the terms of the movie, only be judged as either an accident of bad directing, or the partially unconscious intent of the author. When an Oxford educated white ‘feminist’ director brings forth a scene in which a woman is killed by suffocation in a long lasting forensic almost brutally pornographic scene that revels in the full two and half minutes it takes for a person to be murdered by asphyxiation, a fact gleaned from the director’s own father in law who is an ex-policeman, you really have to wonder about their understanding of what it is they are portraying. No such fate befalls the men in this misguided revenge fantasy, their ultimate comeuppance and Cassie’s choice for the ultimate justice giving heroes in the film are… you guessed it, the police. A god awful set of choices all things considered.
The film is so steadfastly afraid of female anger (Fennell says she doesn’t like anger in women because ‘it’s not sexy or glamorous’) and indeed violence by females that you are left with a toothless heroine that has about as much agency as her position in life suggests being she is a 30 year old medical school drop out who lives at home with her parents and works in a coffee shop. I am not suggesting she grab her agency by diving headlong into revenge movie tropes, it would just be useful if she wasn’t a whole heap of nothing. The coffee shop by the way, is the one of the worst set dressing/lighting/photography jobs ever seen in an Oscar nominated movie. The only genuine moments of satisfaction Cassie’s character gains throughout the entire film are from dancing to a Paris Hilton song with her boyfriend in a movie montage (that the film editor reportedly begged her to cut) and after being the victim of horrific male violence, these are the things from which Cassie derives joy. In fact the Paris Hilton song tells you more about the movie than any of its attempts at political or social commentary. The movie is built almost entirely on a set of miserably delivered aesthetics that boil down to the reality that Fennel thought having a neon light or two, some bright red lipstick and a multi coloured wig and nail varnish combo alongside an ‘ironic/iconic’ soundtrack of Spice Girls, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and a god awful cover of It’s Raining Men would be enough to set a ‘cool’ tone in what is one of the most tonally uneven movies ever to be nominated (and indeed win) major awards. The film lurches from one scene to the next and from one genre to the next in a piece of movie making that isn’t so much confusing to the viewer as it is confused about itself.
Some have made the case that in this award season that is starved of its normal releases due to the pandemic, films that otherwise wouldn’t have been nominated have been thrust into the spotlight. Others have proposed that after the Oscars #metoo #timesup moment they have grabbed whatever film was to hand that was directed by a woman and seems to have some sort of theme about violence towards women as a way of placating the situation. Others have posited the idea that the wide amount of critical acclaim is similarly a fearful reaction to saying that even a poor movie is a poor movie simply because criticism of a film on this subject matter could cause backlash, even if its feminist ideology crumbles upon even the slightest inspection. There may be some truth in all of this but my feeling is (as others have also pointed out) that the sight of two very privileged women such as Mulligan and Fennel expressing their disbelief that this ‘feminist’ film even got made belies the fact they also speak of a set of extremely enthusiastic and helpful studio execs who fast tracked this project into production. Yes in part because its subject matter might be award season bait, but also because it is the type of performative girlboss feminism that, like the film’s main character is entirely afraid of actually going through with any kind of meaningful attack on male perpetrators of assault on women, which is another great reason for execs at one of Hollywood’s biggest studios to love it. Added to this is the reality that, if critics write negative reviews of major release films for studios of this type, the studio will withdraw advance access to future releases the writer needs for reviewing purposes. These days writing a negative review as a critic risks your very ability to be a critic in the future. Critics are just another member of the studio’s promo team at this point.
Sometimes you see a film about something relevant, important and urgent in society and say ‘good point, well made’. In the case of Promising Young Woman the best I can say is ‘good point, badly made’. Beyond its muddled, backwards and even harmful social messaging is a wildly messy film that makes a hash of even what must have been a very attractive mood board that Fennel put together (the mood board the she sent to Mulligan to convince her to take the part). This film’s half baked attempt at aesthetic style Fennel seems to think is somehow a clever device for the movie, as though we have all collectively hit our heads and just discovered juxtaposition for the first time. Mulligan says of the movie “It’s a sort of beautifully wrapped candy, and when you eat it you realize it’s poisonous”, what a revelation we have all had here, I had no idea sugary sweets were bad for you. GCSE level metaphors aside the film is woefully bad at delivering on this visual gimmickry. Promising Young Woman is this year’s female equivalent of The Hangover director Todd Phillip’s brutally overrated Joker (see our review for that here), except without the albeit fleeting moments of vaguely handsome ‘tribute’ style cinematography and strong central performer despite its own accidentally vacuous characters (Mulligans middling efforts are nowhere near good enough to save the film). Joker was perceived by many as film for the underdog with left wing values at its heart when the cold reality of its stance (either as a result of the directors incompetence or more likely as a reflection of his world view) was a pro-Trump fantasy for right wing 15 year old boys, similarly PYM suffers from a perception of being pro-feminist when it is anything but. This muddling and misunderstanding of how to tackle injustice is not a unique offence of Fennel, and certainly understandable given her place in the world as a connected TV star and producer, but more than that, away from its entirely reasonable but botched social ambitions it’s just another really poor piece of film making that lots of people are going to mistake for something of worth, thanks to a few cynically employed pieces of badly executed gimmickry.
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