Promising Young Woman movie review: Two halves of this gender politics drama don’t fit together

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Promising Young Woman movie cast: Carrey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown, Alison Brie
Promising Young Woman movie director: Emerald Fennell
Promising Young Woman movie rating: 2.5 stars

Finally confronted by evidence of what he did to a classmate during a drunken party, telling himself it was consent, Al Monroe, now a successful doctor and an all-around “good man”, pleads: “You don’t know what I went through. It’s a guy’s worst nightmare, being accused like that.” Cassie (Mulligan), about to inflict her revenge, asks: “Guess what every woman’s is?”

Promising Young Woman aspires to address some of those nightmares, bluntly, funnily, but often, unevenly. Where it succeeds is in showing how the world looks so different from the perspective of the two genders: men who genuinely believe they are “gentlemen”, and women too easily dismissed as “easy”. But in its omission of the many layers in between, it feels unsatisfactory, shallow.

While the omission is likely deliberate and well-considered by writer-director Fennell — and who can grudge women full-blown, indiscriminate revenge as that — the film at the same time is trying to make Cassie more than a Killing Eve (Fennell’s script, incidentally). There are hints of mental health issues, with Cassie stuck in a time warp with her gentle parents in a candy-floss house, dressed in candy-floss colours, wearing multi-coloured nails, and crossing out her targets in rainbow shades. Monroe’s victim Nina was Cassie’s childhood friend, and could Cassie be deliberately avoiding growing up? Nina’s mother herself tells Cassie at one point, when she says she is trying to “fix things”, to “not be a child”.

Cassie is also super-smart, appears to have an endless stream of resources, is adept at multiple Ms Hyde get-ups to go hunting for men who unerringly pick out drunken women at bars (class, race no bar), while capable of a funny, easygoing relationship when a Nice Guy (Burnham) does turn up.

The two halves of Cassie don’t fit very well together, though Mulligan, the actor she is, tries almost too hard.

Some of the choices that Cassie makes in her meandering course of revenge, and the way she goes about it, are questionable. The only one repenting turns out to be an unlikely lawyer.

The film opens with cameras focused on the mid-portions of well-dressed men gyrating on a dance floor, lingering on their thighs and other more intimate parts. While Promising Young Woman is about this, about male privilege, about the easy fallibility of “good men”, about how flaky that confidence is when confronted by a woman with just a stare or just cold sobriety, it is wonderful. When it ventures into thinner ground, of teenagers, parties, consent, mistakes — the “he said, she said” territory, as the film acknowledges — it seems to know the questions to ask but doesn’t have the language for them


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