Film Reviews

“Adds Little New To The Conversation” – Film Review: Promising Young Woman

Alex Watkin

Promising Young Woman directed by Emerald Fennel takes on the issues of sexual harassment and rape culture. These are issues that need more exposure and open discussion within mainstream discourses, however, Fennel’s film adds little new to the conversation.

The film seems, first and foremost, designed to make young men (like myself) more aware of how we are all complicit in allowing a culture of sexual harassment to persist. In this sense the film works as it did make me think more frankly than ever before about the issue. However, this idea does not sustain the film for its 113-minute runtime and so it quickly devolves into a revenge thriller with a very lacklustre ending.

The film follows protagonist Cassandra (Carrey Mulligan), a highflying med-school student who dropped out when her friend was sexually abused at a party in front of a thoughtless audience. The film finds her working in a coffee shop and living at home with her parents. During the night she goes out to clubs pretending to be drunk. Inevitably, men try to sexually engage her, but before anything goes too far, she reveals she is still sober, exposing their manipulative behaviour.

At first, it’s not obvious why Cassandra is the way she is because we are unaware of the sexual violence committed against her friend. However, once the story of sexual violence is revealed, Cassandra’s psychology becomes very concrete. This emotional trauma acts as clear decipherable motivation, so for some this will make the character less interesting, for others the clarity will make it easier to invest in Cassandra.

The film is designed purposely to force men to honestly compare the world the film presents to the one they know

However, as aforementioned, the main interest in the film is its presentation of sexual abuse as an out-of-control epidemic, where no one is willing to take responsibility. To some extent you could brandish the film’s presentation of men as cynical, but I think Fennel is fully aware of this. The film is designed purposely to force men to honestly compare the world the film presents to the one they know. To do this the film can’t pull its punches… and it doesn’t.

This ambition is all well and good and it does achieve it, nevertheless there is a point where it becomes a little tiresome. Once this happens there isn’t much here besides a relatively straightforward revenge story. The ending seems to try to subvert the standard revenge thriller formula and in terms of plot it does do this. Yet, fundamentally it still ends the exact same way most revenge thrillers do – *spoiler* – she gets her revenge.

Revenge thrillers rarely satisfy me. I find it very difficult to find revenge as motivation interesting and Promising Young Woman is no different. However, given the real issues the film is dealing with (rather than the make belief world of John Wick, for example) Promising Young Woman demands to be more than just a play on genre. Unfortunately, the ending satisfies only on the surface level. It’s the type of ending where you are meant to be clapping triumphantly, but really, you’re sat there thinking “wait, is that it?”.

Its glitzy style is at odds with the subject matter

It’s also worth questioning the stylistic presentation of the film. The bright colours are rather ugly, the insistent score is distracting and the writing and acting styles lack restraint. Yet, even ignoring these very subjective observations, its glitzy style is at odds with the subject matter. This results in the film mostly coming off as superficial and lacking any sense of reality. The style will make the film more accessible for some mainstream audiences as it creates moments of engaging suspense and tension, but these moments are cheap spectacle, so I will avoid praising them further.

Promising Young Woman will find an audience due to its subject matter and it’s a worthwhile watch for this reason. Unfortunately, the film fails to move beyond the revenge thriller genre, due to its unsatisfying ending. This, along with misplaced stylistic choices, prevents the film from being anything special.

3 stars

Alex Watkin

Featured image courtesy of Kristof De Smet via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes made to this image.

In-article images courtesy of @promisingyoungwoman via No changes made to these images.

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One Comment
  • Bec
    11 May 2021 at 23:41
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    ‘Inevitably, men try to sexually engage her,’


    Inevitably because a woman was dressed a certain way. Inevitably because she was drunk. Inevitably because she was out at night. Inevitably because she wasn’t with friends. Inevitably because she is a she. Inevitably because men will inevitably take advantage of a woman. Inevitably.

    When you use language like this, you are clearly part of the problem and inevitably missed the entire point of the film. You’re a journalist. Be more careful with your use of language, as a man, as a writer. Do better.

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