A blast of anger

Kate Johnstone, Associate Editor for Culture, watches the Oscar-winning Promising Young Woman.

My partner was gloomy when we finished watching ‘Promising Young Woman’. ‘Men are shit’, he observed. Or, as it was put by another critic, it’s ‘Basic Instinct for the #MeToo generation’. It’s also funny, as long as you like your humour jet-black.

The opening shots of the film communicates so much of what’s to come: slo-mo footage of businessmen bumping and grinding on the dance floor, shirts hanging out and nascent pot bellies on show. Normally this would be framed for comic effect: isn’t it funny that these guys think their dancing is sexy? It is funny, yet it’s also unsettling, somehow predatory.

Three of these guys are talking at the bar. Two of them are leering at an attractive and inebriated woman nearby, sliding off a sofa – it’s Cassie (Carey Mulligan). They speculate on which one of them should take advantage of her, but it’s the nice guy who steps forward instead, expressing concern and offering protection. Already we feel relieved, yet our unconscious film-brain knows that only five minutes in, things cannot be that simple. It turns out the nice guy isn’t nice, and Cassie isn’t drunk. 

Cassie is in touching distance of 30, living at home with her parents (Clancy Brown and a brilliant Jennifer Coolidge), and working in a coffee shop despite her obvious ability to do something more challenging. Her only focus seems to be pretending to be drunk in bars. Clearly, something’s going on here, but what? It’s a puzzle, maybe a thriller? It’s funny, satirical and slightly hyper-real, with eye-popping candy colours and snappy dialogue. It’s a drama, with something significant bubbling underneath the irony; and when Ryan (Bo Burnham) turns up, a romance. 

Part of the brilliance of this film is this fluid approach to genre, for which the screenwriter and director Emerald Fennell must take full credit. Her Oscar win for Best Original Screenplay is well-deserved, as was her nomination for Best Director. It’s both depressing and completely unsurprising to know that there have been a total of seven women nominated in this category in 93 Oscar ceremonies – here’s a handy visual aid of the gender breakdown of the Oscars from last year.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot, as to get the maximum from this film, I’d recommend avoiding plot spoilers, of which there are potentially many. On several occasions I gasped at a particular audacious or horrendous plot reveal. The poster says ‘revenge never looked so promising’, and we understand from early on that this must be associated with a sexual assault. Some viewers may be understandably wary of the film for that reason. But it takes its responsibility not to retraumatise as seriously as the human need to laugh.

There have been criticisms of the film, from its limited racial diversity (the main black character is Cassie’s boss Gail, played by an underused Laverne Cox), to its lack of analysis of the structural forces which enable sexual assault. The inaccuracy of the Basic Instinct comparison – a film which centred on the male gaze – is that it’s told entirely from a woman’s point of view. But it is a film for the #MeToo generation, a blast of anger which strips away the social niceties and says ‘we’re not going to take this any more’. It’s not blind to the ways in which women can let each other down: but it is laser-focused on where the real responsibility lies. It’s already a cultural landmark, and will stay in the mind for a long time to come.

- Find more on sexual violence in our archive.

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