Mr. Green: “Have you come here to hurt me?”
Cassie: “Do you want me to hurt you?”
“Promising Young Woman” (2020) is going to entertain and keep you riveted as it makes unexpected turns, but it’s going to definitely make you feel uncomfortable at times, too. And I guarantee that its ending will make you want to turn to someone to discuss. If you’re alone, make sure somebody you know will see it around the same time as you do. It’s a fearless vision from first-time director Emerald Fennell, who is known for being the head writer of Season 2 of the popular TV series “Killing Eve” and playing Camilla Parker Bowles in Season 3 of “The Crown.” It’s rare to encounter a movie which offers such striking visual notes, along with a very intriguing premise which simultaneously raises difficult questions about toxic sexist abuse in our culture. It’s unlike anything around and hard to peg down – it’s a feminist thriller, a wickedly dark comedy, a vigilante story and a morality play. There were moments that I found hilarious while two seconds later I was horrified. It also has one of the highlights of the stellar career of Academy Award nominated actor Carey Mulligan – in a valiant turn.
Cassie is extremely smart. At some point, she was a promising young woman who was heading to a medical career, but something happened that made her drop out of pre-med and put her life in a form of inertia. She lives at home with her parents and works at a coffee shop. At nights, she leads a double-life – following some form of ritual. She goes to bars and feigns to be completely blotto and vulnerable. She lures men into taking her to their homes, and once they start to take advantage of her, that’s when she snaps out of it and teaches her would-be predators a lesson on boundaries and respect. Cassie is taking revenge on the real world – without a gun. Encounter after encounter, she keeps a tally mark in a little book underneath her bed. Her ritual entails dressing differently and elaborately for each night. Some evenings she pretends to be a young executive, others a more provocative girl wanting to have some fun. With Cassie, her look is part of the ruse.
One day, a former friend from school, Ryan, walks in to buy a coffee and appears to be Prince Charming. He gives Cassie a sense of hope and romance, but he also triggers something. She finds out about their former circle of friends – who to her disappointment have chosen denial about something that transpired amongst them. The trauma that she thought could be controlled is now exasperated. She becomes a form of a ghost of Christmas past and goes on a mission to visit each one and offer two choices, confess and move on with your life or face a terrible consequence. Notice that I’m being a little vague about the details. Revenge is sweet, and I don’t want to spoil it. The least you know.
Mulligan is doing a high wire act as Cassie. She’s outwardly tough, but there’s turmoil inside her that makes her vulnerable. She projects the external sense of apathy and coolness but has obviously been eaten up by grief and rage. She finds great support in the actors around her – including a memorable turn by Bo Burnham as the love interest who might bring her salvation. Lanky Burnham is the writer director of “Eighth Grade” (2018). Alfred Molina who’d previously co-starred with Mulligan in “An Education” makes a brief but unforgettable appearance.
Fennell has constructed quite a trap for us. The environment in which Cassie’s story unfolds is terrific — filled with vivid colors, neon and a catchy pop soundtrack – as if we were inside a candy shop, in stark contrast with the darker strains in the narrative. It unsettles us. Things are not quite right. Most startling and telling is Cassie’s parents’ home which seems to be frozen in time. What’s going on with those portraits of dogs all over the house? Her bedroom is the way it must have been when she was a teenager. The costume designs by Nancy Steiner go along way to help us understand Cassie’s state of mind while at the same time being subversive.
Emerald Fennell has made a very timely film that is a heck of a ride. She’s an original.
Cassie: “I need to lie down…What are you doing?
Jez: “It’s okay. Hey, you’re safe.”
Cassie: “Hey, I said, what are you doing?”
Promising Young Woman will be available to stream beginning tomorrow, January 15th and to rent on Amazon Prime, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and FandangoNow.
Written and Directed by Emerald Fennell
Starring Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox and Connie Britton
Writer/Director Emerald Fennell on Bringing “Promising Young Woman” to the Screen
It started with a single scene. Filmmaker Emerald Fennell claims to be a “bit of an amnesiac” when it comes to parsing out the origins of her biggest ideas, but she does remember the first moment in which her candy-colored, pitch-black revenge thriller “Promising Young Woman” presented itself to her. It’s a scene that still exists in the film’s finished form, a first feature that Fennell is pleased as punch to report is very close to the big, wild idea she started pitching back in the spring of 2017. “What usually happens with me is a scene comes into my head first, and for me it was the scene with Cassie on the bed,” Fennell said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “It was this idea of a woman lying on the bed, drunk, somebody taking her pants down and her saying, ‘What are you doing? What are you doing?,’ very drunk. And then switching up and saying, ‘What are you doing?,’ very sober. That came in fairly fully formed, and that really uncracks what this film is going to be.”…Fennell’s first short film, “Careful How You Go,” tipped into similar territory. Billed as “a darkly comic three part short film about malevolent women,” Fennell built the festival favorite on the premise of “how could you hurt someone without touching them or threatening them in any way? How could you just fuck up someone’s life in a very unexpected way?” All of that fed into “Promising Young Woman.” “I’d been thinking a lot at the time about the way that rage and anger manifests itself, particularly in women when we don’t traditionally, in spite of what most revenge movies tell us, resort to violence,” she said. “It was looking at the different ways in which women act on those feelings, if they do. … And it was pretty hot on the heels of it becoming a much bigger, more global conversation.”
Fennell, who is also currently starring on Netflix’s “The Crown” as a young Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall — yes, she really can do everything — knew she was treading in tough territory for her first feature. “Cassie has two paths in front of her, and one of them is Candyland and one of them is decidedly not, it’s scorched earth,” Fennell said. In order to explain that dichotomy between Cassie — the lollipop-sucking sweet-shop worker with a massive affection for the dulcet tones of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, but also the wily revenge-seeker who carries a notebook filled with the names of her “victims” — Fennell crafted mood boards. They included all sorts of shiny reference points, from ’60s French films to “Sweet Valley High” books, a multicolored manicure, bright clothing, all the better to sell the soft sweetness of Cassie, before flipping it into far darker territory. “I know how the script reads, this is what it’s going to feel like though, because it needs to feel like Cassie feels,”…In every facet of this film, when it comes to the music, when it comes to the costumes, when it comes to the art direction, the cinematography, it was always, this needs to feel safe. It needs to feel fun until it isn’t, and that’s it,” she said. “Always it’s approximating Cassie’s interior life, but it’s also the feeling that so many people have, which is, oh, this is fun. And then it’s not fucking fun anymore. In many ways, it’s Cassie’s story, but it’s also an allegory, it is supposed to come at you.” Fennell is relying on her audience thinking they know where it’s all going, exactly how Cassie might exact her final revenge, when the cycle will end, the happy ending that ties all that pain and glitter up. That’s the point. “It was important that we as an audience are rooting for the very thing that she’s trying to stave off,” Fennell said. “So much of it is trying to make all of us watching it complicit in what our culture and our society does, which is say, ‘Forget about it. Look how easy it would be.’” (indiewire.com)
Writer/Director Emerald Fennell and Actor Carey Mulligan on “Promising Young Woman”
“If I read the first 20 pages [of a script] and I think, ‘Oh, I know where this is going,’ I just don’t find it interesting,” the actress told IndieWire during a recent interview. “There has to be something that feels like there’s a definite risk and that I could fuck it up. Otherwise, it just doesn’t feel worth it.”…“That’s what I loved so much, every five pages, getting wrong-footed,” the actress said. “That was so refreshing to read something and have no idea what was going to happen with each character and where it was going to go and what she was doing and what was the truth of what she was doing. There was so much surprise in it for me the first time I read it. Even to the end of the film, I just wasn’t expecting things to go the way they did.” The Oscar-nominated Mulligan, best known for dramatic fare like “Wildlife,” “Shame,” “An Education,” and “Never Let Me Go,” has always had a keen sense of humor — see her breakout portrayal of the ditzy Kitty Bennet in Joe Wright’s “Pride & Prejudice” — but Fennell’s film is the first that has so cannily married those skill sets into one remarkable part for the British actress. “It could only be her,” Fennell told IndieWire. “Carey is so good and just famously good and she chooses so carefully and she’s really always kept to her own journey in terms of what she picks. She’s very private, which makes quite an enigmatic actress. I really wanted somebody who wasn’t going to come and make her a kick-ass superhero comic book character. I wanted her to be the stillness at the center of it all. She was my dream person.” The pair first met at a mutual friend’s house before Christmas 2018 — Fennell had gently maneuvered the meeting, knowing how much she wanted Mulligan for the role — and by New Year’s Day, Mulligan had the script in hand. The actress said she quickly gravitated to Fennell’s sense of humor and confidence, and so while she had some idea of what was in store for her, Fennell left nothing to chance. With the script came a mood board, plus a Spotify playlist that included not one, but two versions of Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” “And I thought, right, I get where this is going,” Mulligan said. “Then we met and sat down and within five minutes, I said, ‘Thank you so much for asking me to do this. A hundred percent, yes, please. Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ And then we got to work.”
Fennell’s film is built around a heightened world — that the film is both a black comedy and a revenge thriller, while also boasting a candy-colored production design and a creeping sense of mortal dread gives some indication of the many layers it contains — but Mulligan was always drawn to finding the truth at the heart of its razor-sharp design. “I had to come to it from the way I would approach anything, which is, what’s the most truthful way to tell the story of this person and why is she doing the things she’s doing?,” she said. “And usually the reason I’m so interested in doing something is because I read it and I’m sort of thinking — and this is increasingly so, as I’m a bit older and have worked a bit more — ‘Oh, God, I have no idea why she said that,’ or ‘I can’t understand her behavior.’” That’s something that might be daunting to other performers, but that’s what really thrills Mulligan, the possibility that she might “fuck it up.” In 2018, it was Paul Dano’s period drama “Wildlife” that gave her that same zing, and it’s no coincidence that her work in both films has drawn the best reviews of her career. “It was the same with ‘Wildlife,’ there were some things that Jeannette said that I didn’t understand, there were things she did that didn’t make sense,” Mulligan said. “And then when I sort of figured her out, it was like, ‘Oh, okay, this is why she did this, and this all makes sense to me now.’ It was the same with Cassie, sort of reading it and some of it feeling that I couldn’t kind of get to grips with it. Then when we worked on it and we figured out where this was all coming from and how she was affected by the events in her life, and it all sort of started coming together.” That’s when things get really fun for Mulligan. “Then we got to play within those parameters and go quite sort of boldly in one direction or another, which Emerald was key in helping me do, because my tendency will always be to be less, because I’m afraid of overacting and I don’t like big showy things,” Mulligan said.
“I like things that feel truthful, but in some cases, you need to move out of your comfort zone, and Emerald is really good at pushing me a bit out of it.”…“I think this is a permanent state of being for her,” Mulligan said. “It’s not something that happened yesterday. This has sort of settled in to her body. It’s important for her not to spill out in ways that she can’t control, because she needs to be in control to complete her missions on these evenings with the ‘nice guys.’ She needs to be in control, because otherwise, it can all go very wrong.”…If she’s going to be surprised, like she was with “Promising Young Woman,” it has to mean something. “I want to keep looking for parts of people who don’t have all the answers and people who are human and flawed like everybody is, and it was just shocking to me, how little there is of that,” Mulligan said. “So it’s awesome to see when there’s more parts like that coming up, not necessarily just for me, but in general. It seems like things are definitely on the turn in the last couple of years.” And Mulligan is hoping that the sort of surprises that delight her can do the same for audiences. “Promising Young Woman,” which is rife with twists and turns and real shocks, is her ideal. “I think it’s great to be a part of something where people don’t know whether they’re allowed to laugh or not, and creating that kind of unease and that sort of tension and relief, where people could feel extremely anxious for a character or for a situation,” Mulligan said. “And then they get to release that anxiety and then they laugh, and then the next second they’re doing something else. That’s what I go to see a film for, I think watching films is for that experience of being taken on a proper ride. I just love not knowing what’s going to happen.” (indiewire.com)
Carey Mulligan on Playing Cassie
“I love seeing what are usually perceived as negative things, negative aspects of someone’s personality, onscreen,” says Carey Mulligan. Then, she adds the kicker: “Particularly in women. Because I just think it’s so rare.” If there’s a common thread to the wide array of film, television, and theater roles Mulligan has played since her Oscar-nominated, BAFTA Award–winning breakout in “An Education,” it’s that they all feel like familiar women—foibles, flaws, and all. Onscreen in “Never Let Me Go,” “Drive,” “Shame,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Far from the Madding Crowd,” “Mudbound,” “Wildlife,” and BBC Two and Netflix’s “Collateral,” and onstage in New York and her native London in “The Seagull,” “Skylight,” and “Girls & Boys,” Mulligan never renders her characters anything less than three-dimensional. “I’m fascinated by this idea of the ‘unlikable’ woman,” the actor tells Backstage. “We aren’t used to seeing women onscreen, misbehaving…. I think there’s a real shift happening. There’s a bigger audience now for seeing real, interesting women onscreen.”…When it comes to playing trauma or rage, she says, “It doesn’t drain me—if anything, I feel better afterwards.” Inventing or imagining is safer than drawing from personal experiences that, as Mulligan points out, probably can’t match a character’s extremes anyway. Her advice: separate yourself from your work. “I love my job and it’s the best job in the world, but also it is a job. It’s something that can’t be more important than when I get home and I have to do bath time [with my kids]…. I generally go home and watch ‘American Ninja Warrior’ or something really sort of easy.” Besides, playing angry characters, like Jean in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Jeanette in “Wildlife,” or Cassandra, can provide cathartic release. “It’s fun to smash up a car, there’s no two ways about it, taking a crowbar to a car is just objectively really fun,” she adds with a laugh. (backstage.com)
Costume Designer Nancy Steiner on “Promising Young Woman”
“Well, I read the script, and I just thought it was such a twisted, interesting thriller/revenge movie. I’d never read anything like it before, and I loved the fact that it was written by a woman, being directed by a woman, and from a woman’s point of view. So, it was all very attractive to me, and then of course, meeting Emerald, she’s such a vivacious character. It was love at first sight…”
… “We were actually kind of looking at women from the ’60s—a little Brigitte Bardot…You know, it happened so fast, I had some reference, and we kind of steered a little bit away from what we were thinking in the beginning. But not too far away. Like, I did include some vintage stuff in there, and then a lot of new stuff, as well. We didn’t want it to pigeonhole exactly who she was, but we wanted her to be beautiful, and look feminine, [so] you would never know she was a depressed girl in her 30s, living with her parents. I mean, her behavior, yes. Maybe. But not the way she’s dressing…It was a great collaboration. Carey’s lovely. She was all in for the part, and it’s a taxing part. It’s very interesting. I know she’s getting a lot of accolades. But she was great. We had three weeks of prep, which is a very short time, so we went in full steam ahead. We did, I think, maybe two or three fittings, and honed her closet, and then things changed here and there, throughout. But you make a kind of closet for her. Certain things are for specific scenes, and other things can kind of float around a little bit more. So, that’s how we did it. We had a couple of fittings throughout the shooting, when we made the nurse’s dress. That was actually towards the end of our shoot.” (deadline.com)
About Writer and Director Emerald Fennell
Emerald Fennell is an Emmy® nominated writer, director, actress and author who has established herself as a prolific multihyphenate in theater, film and television…Fennell’s new film, which she wrote and directed, “Promising Young Woman” will be released by Focus Features both domestically and internationally in 2021. The film was recognized as one of the top scripts of the 2018 Blacklist. Fennell can currently be seen in Season 3 of “The Crown” playing Camilla Parker Bowles, for which she’s receiving rave reviews. Prior to that, she served as Head Writer on Season 2 of “Killing Eve,” for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe. She is currently writing a contemporary musical stage version of Cinderella alongside Andrew Lloyd Weber. Fennell’s debut short, “Careful How You Go,” which she wrote and directed, premiered at Sundance in 2019. Previously, she sold a pilot, “Space Bound,” to Fox with Gail Berman attached as the producer. Fennell has published three novels: “Shiverton Hall” along with the sequel, “The Creeper,” and 2017 Carnegie Medal nominee “Monsters,” all of which were incredibly well-received and drew comparisons ranging from Roald Dahl to Bret Easton Ellis. Her recent on-camera film credits include “The Danish Girl,” “Pan” and “Anna Karenina.” (focusfeatures.com)