Groundbreaking or highly cynical? Promising Young Woman: the film that’s dividing feminists

Susannah Butter
·5-min read
Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman (AP)
Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman (AP)

The first time the film Promising Young Woman was shown to the public, it sparked a fight. After the brutal twist, viewers became animated. One shouted at another: “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to stay!” The objecting party walked out. “No one was sitting comfortably,” Carey Mulligan, who plays the lead character, has said. “It provokes a reaction that is unlike anything I have seen in a long time.”

Promising Young Woman is out tomorrow and continues to polarise. Written and directed by Emerald Fennell (who played Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown and was a showrunner on Killing Eve), it is about Cassie (Mulligan) and her vigilante vengeance campaign to get justice for her friend Nina after fellow students at her university raped her and filmed it, and no one believed the sex wasn’t consensual.

A broken Cassie drops out of medical school and dedicates her life to getting revenge on men who think that being drunk equates to consent — the film opens with her pretending to be messily plastered, make-up smeared. A man, played in smart casting by The OC’s nice guy Adam Brody, attempts to take advantage, but she gets the last laugh.

The film is heavily stylised, fizzing with rage and, depending on what you read, it is either a feminist landmark, cleverly and cathartically depicting anger about an ancient problem, post-#MeToo, and deserves the Baftas it won on Sunday for Outstanding British Film and Best Original Screenplay and five Oscar nominations; or it’s an insubstantial attempt at a revenge story, which ultimately undermines women, pandering to a Hollywood which wants to look like it is supporting women after Harvey Weinstein’s downfall.

The detractors argue that Cassie does not have Nina’s consent to act in the way she does and the ending (no spoilers) makes her attempts at justice hollow given that women still suffer. Slate criticised it for not addressing Cassie’s white privilege; her boss at the coffee shop where she works (Laverne Cox) is cast as what Slate calls “the Magical Black Cupcake Boss with no apparent backstory or life goals other than to support the fragile Cassie”.

Focus Features
Focus Features

It is the last film I saw before lockdown last year, at a preview before its release was Covid-delayed, and I am still thinking about it, which in my book is a mark of its success. It has become more topical as the Everyone’s Invited website has started conversations about consent at school and university. In the US, students are to be offered free screenings as part of an anti-sexual violence campaign. It has a clear message about how easy it is to be unthinkingly complicit in hurtful acts, by laughing with your friends or not telling them off. But that is not to say it is preachy. This is a film that doesn’t fit into any boxes. At one point it flirts with being a rom-com — Cassie has a fledgling relationship with an old medical school friend (played by another nice guy, Bo Burnham) which is straight out of the Hollywood romance playbook. He makes her want to be more ambitious and there’s a scene where they dance to Stars are Blind by Paris Hilton that I lapped up, though I can see how some would view it as syrupy.

The film’s aesthetic is central to its appeal. It is like stepping into a sweetshop. Cassie dresses to disarm; men won’t suspect a woman in a floral dress, fluffy jumper and hair in a plait. In Killing Eve too, Fennell made Villanelle use clothes as a weapon. There was a row about a critic saying that Mulligan wasn’t attractive enough to play Cassie — he said the point is that because she doesn’t look like a femme fatale her behaviour has a surprising impact. There are also comparisons with Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You (although Coel’s women come out of it better). But I think that seeing Promising Young Woman as a straight revenge fantasy misses the point. I saw it as a film about guilt, grief and obsession, from the view of a woman who can’t accept the unjust status quo.

The scene that explains the whole film is when Cassie goes to meet Nina’s mother. “I know you feel bad that you weren’t there but you have got to let it go,” Nina’s mother tells her. Guilt is etched on Cassie’s face for not going with Nina to the party where she was raped. She says she wants to fix it and we see how this self-hatred is ruining her. Her parents no longer recognise her (Jennifer Coolidge from Legally Blonde is particularly good as her mother).

We see how other women and seemingly nice people become caught up in things which can destroy lives — look out for the scene where Cassie takes a university classmate (Alison Brie) to lunch and gets her “afternoon drunk”, saying “all guys want the same thing, a good girl”, and for Max Greenfield (Schmidt in New Girl).

The soundtrack tells a story too. At the end, Something Wonderful from The King and I plays, a song about excusing men and loving them even when they behave appallingly. In Promising Young Woman, we see the devastating and far-reaching consequences of this. This is not an easy film but those people walking out? That’s just the prelude to the conversations it is going to start.

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