Promising Young Woman

Reviewed by Anuraag Asiwal, BA, Batch of 2023, Kirit P. Mehta School of Law, Mumbai

The opening scene of Promising Young Woman may be a very clever flip on the well-established cliché of seeing scantily-clad women dancing sensually to thumping techno music. But writer-director, Emerald Fennell, cleverly subverts this, by showing middle-aged men gyrating to Charli XCX’s Boys. From the get-go, the film challenges the notions of what one might expect from a film like this.

Fennell shows our lead heroine, Cassandra (Carey Mulligan), exactly how predatory men prefer to view their prey – helpless damsels in distress, looking for a “good guy” to take care of them. The quotes around the term “good guy” will become apparent as we read further. One of her first “students”, cause I feel victim is too kind and sympathetic a word for the men in this movie, is taught his lesson, who is a self-proclaimed “good guy” when he takes an inebriated (or so he thinks), Cassandra, out of the club and offers to drop her home. Instead, he invites him over to his place and begins plying her further with alcohol. When she states she wants to lie down, he gets into bed with her and tries to take advantage of her drunkenness, all the while she asks him “What are you doing?”, slurring her words. At the end of this, she sits upright, revealing herself to not be drunk but stone-cold sober, shocking him.

If you think this is the twist in the tale, you are in for one of the bumpiest and exhilarating rides that cinema and strong filmmaking has to offer. Cassandra, plays the titular promising young woman, a promising medical student who dropped out of college when her best friend, Nina, is date-raped by a fellow student, and as usually is the case, who manages to go scot-free. From the look of it, she pledges to scare men straight, who similarly take advantage of women by subjecting them to grey-area rape and sexual violence, in their drunken state.

She pretends to be drunk, has a well-intentioned man come over and offers his chivalrous services and subsequently tries to take advantage of her believing her to be drunk and easier to manipulate and get into bed. It is at this moment, that she reveals herself to not be drunk. On finding out that Nina’s rapist is getting married, he goes on a tirade to get revenge from all those that not only was actively involved in her rape like her rapist Al Monroe (Chris Lowell) but also, those that severe complicit in creating an environment of forgiveness and doubt surrounding his actions and the testimony made by Nina owing to her being drunk at the time. It would be a great disservice to all those reading this review to spoil the ending, or even hint at the same. It is one that must be watched by everyone and spoiled by none.

The film, in itself, is a genuine masterwork, especially considering that this is Fennell’s first time directing a film. The film not only has something to say but has employed the most effective way to say it, through the most visceral media at our disposal as a society – film. This piece of work will have you on the edge of your seat cheering one moment and howling in anger the next, which just goes to show just how effective it is in its evocation of a response. A timely portrait of our society, regardless of nationality, one which incentivises and supports rape culture, has been represented, questioned and demolished in its own tiny, quotidian manner, which shows revenge in a manner that has never been seen on screen before. It makes us question our morals and check our blind spots when it comes to ourselves and those we believe to be “good guys”. With perfect casting, incredible writing and phenomenal acting by Mulligan and masterful directing, the film manages to get under your skin and stay there long after the credits have rolled away.

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