“Promising Young Woman” powerfully showcases Carey Mulligan and confronts prominent contemporary societal issues

Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut bleeds with deftly uncompromising power and ferociousness.


Courtesy of IMDb

Carey Mulligan stars as the sharp Cassandra Thomas.

On Monday, Jan. 25, “Promising Young Woman” made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. The film stars Academy Award-nominated actress Carey Mulligan as Cassandra Thomas, a woman who, stricken with the horrifying circumstances surrounding her friend Nina’s death, discreetly takes revenge on predatory men and the people who led to it.

The film marks the 17th feature film in Mulligan’s acting career, following “Wildlife.” Alongside her is comedian Bo Burnham as Ryan, Cassie’s love interest, and Alison Brie as Madison McPhee, one of the people involved in the circumstances around Nina’s death. Burnham previously wrote and directed the critically acclaimed “Eighth Grade,” and Brie was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for her performance in “GLOW.”

All of the actors in the film brought their A-game to their performances. Mulligan exudes the self-assured and sly nature of Cassie while also maintaining her dedication because of her broken side. Nothing in her performance feels over-the-top or melodramatic despite how easily it could’ve been. Burnham also shines in his supporting role. It takes a little while to build Ryan and Cassie’s connection, but their chemistry eventually flows naturally. He takes on many nuances exceptionally as his character becomes a bigger part of the story too.

The crown jewel of the film, however, comes in the form of writer-director Emerald Fennell in her first feature-length writing and directorial credit. Fennell, hot off of a supporting role on “The Crown” understands and commands the material with tremendous ferocity and subtlety.

In those scenes where Cassie lures in predatory men or other intended targets, she doesn’t hold back. Fennell wants us to feel her pain, not just show it. And the best way to do that would be to show how dedicated, confident, and cunning Cassie is as she manipulates the harmful and abusive people she encounters. The dialogue, like most of what Fennell contributed to the film, is uncompromising and sells this spectacularly. It exudes so much conviction that, if the movie were terrible, she’d still defend every letter she put to paper.

The film successfully combines this power of vision with its variety of subtleties as well. Fennell’s direction uses silent long shots to illustrate how alone Cassie is in her endeavor and a slideshow of her and Nina that brightens and darkens the set to emanate her heart-wrenching sadness over the situation. There are also many tense set-pieces throughout the film, and it’s difficult to create tension where your protagonist is in control. However, Fennell drops parts of the backstory throughout, managing to keep us on the edge of our feet and eventually understand the film’s exposition while Cassie keeps control of the current situation.

Mulligan’s Thomas taking revenge against one of the people involved in Nina’s death. (Courtesy of Focus Features)

Despite its dark subject matter, the film is still hilarious. Fennell manages to use Cassie’s control over the situations she manipulates to be ironically witty throughout or proceeding the anxious and bleak tone of the scene. Part of this is due to the screenplay for sure, but Mulligan’s line delivery truly brings it home. Fennell could’ve made her scenes of power more dramatic than humorous, but her use of sly humor furthered her ingenious personality a lot more.

Some of the humor is more upbeat and less dark, however, similar to what you’d expect from a well-written feel-good movie. Most of Ryan’s dialogue comes from sharp one-liners, and he manages to lead entire scenes because of this. When he and Cassie visit a pharmacy and a Paris Hilton song starts playing, he starts playfully singing and dancing to Cassie’s enjoyment. It’s upbeat, funny, and builds chemistry all at the same time.

The film’s soundtrack and score are also effective. After a successful night in Cassie’s endeavors, she assertively walks barefoot down the street while eating a pastry as the thunderous “It’s Raining Men” from Romy Flores blares in the background. The score from Anthony Willis sets up the atmosphere of many important set-pieces adequately, from a confrontation with a prominent figure in the plot to a heart-to-heart chat between Cassie and Nina’s mom, played by Molly Shannon.

I’d be extremely remiss not to mention the relevance of the film’s social themes. With powerful social protests such as the #MeToo movement, the longstanding issue of gender equality is in the spotlight now more than ever. Fennell uses the consequences that the worst of the unjust power against women creates to drive the plot and create an urgency to address them.

Her call to action is clear and direct as well. Numerous scenes in the film show characters in positions of power using that to their advantage at the expense of others or indolently out of their own carelessness. The preeminent commonality that all of those characters shared was the ability to step in and act against the abuses of powers demonstrated. To hold themselves and their peers accountable for those heinous actions. Yet, when those abuses are shown to them face-to-face like a mirror, they almost ubiquitously feigned ignorance or begged for forgiveness without remorse.

“There are so many men who sweep sexual assault and harassment under the rug, and it’s all too likely the reason why is because they’ve done something similar in the past and don’t want to own up to it, and I think this film was correct to call them out,” said Sophie Kempenaar, junior.

Speaking from the perspective of a male towards a male audience, none of us should ever need a Cassandra Thomas to shed light and take action upon abusive actions. We all have the power to do that ourselves and need to wield that power as such. Listen to what you know is wrong and stand up against it. It all starts with your voice and your conscience. Use them dutifully to wield your power.

You can watch “Promising Young Woman” in theaters now.