Promising Young Woman: Carey Mulligan film 'deeply troubling'
Every week, 29-year-old Cassie Thomas goes to a nightclub alone and pretends to be drunk.
And she does a convincing job. She is unsteady on her feet, her eyes unfocused, her speech slurred. It usually isn't long before an apparently kind man approaches and offers to help her get home.
Except they don't take her home. More often than not, they find an excuse to take her back to their place instead, in the hope she's so drunk they'll be able to have sex with her. They ignore her comments about not feeling well or wanting to go to sleep.
It's normally when they begin taking her clothes off that their plan starts to go wrong. Suddenly, Cassie's eyes snap into focus, and the tone of the voice turns deadly. "What are you doing?" she asks.
She isn't drunk at all, and the hunter is about to become the hunted.
This is the premise of Promising Young Woman, a new film starring Carey Mulligan and directed by Emerald Fennell, and which has picked up five nominations for this year's Oscars.
Fennell, who was a producer and writer on the 2019 series of Killing Eve and plays Camilla Parker Bowles (now the Duchess of Cornwall) in The Crown, drew on her own experiences seeing drunk girls being taken advantage of when coming up with the concept.
"It's a huge part of hook-up culture, regrettably," she tells BBC News. "And there still isn't that much opprobrium on people who sleep with very drunk girls. It was absolutely commonplace when I was growing up, I think probably in most places it still is.
"I hope it's getting better, I still think a lot of people haven't thought about the stuff we discuss in this film very deeply, or they haven't thought about that kind of soft coercion that we often see."
Hearing the premise and watching the trailer, it would be easy to think Promising Young Woman is a feminist polemic which unfairly tarnishes all men with the same brush.
But it's a bit more complicated than that. For one thing, there are several female characters in the film who also face Cassie's wrath over their own dubious behaviour. Whether it's the college dean who didn't properly investigate an assault accusation, or the friend of a rape victim who turns a blind eye. To varying degrees, there are multiple characters, of both sexes, who are complicit.
"There have been so many people, so many women too, myself included, there are times when none of us behaved in ways we should've, were supportive enough or took things seriously enough," Fennell says.
"And for lots of men I think [the film] has been deeply troubling because they've realised that maybe there have been moments where they didn't have enough empathy to think of what the other person might be experiencing."
She adds: "I don't think it's a polemic against men, but it's a polemic against the culture that we all grew up in which tends to side with men more than it does with women."
Promising Young Woman was due to come out last spring, not long after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. The film was delayed due to the pandemic, but early reviews were broadly positive.
"Dramatically, it's so sharply and boldly laid out that its narrative shocks rule the day," wrote The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy. It's jolting to witness how it refuses to let anyone off the hook."
But not everybody thought the film hit the correct notes. "This is lip-gloss misanthropy packaged as feminist manifesto, clever but not smart, cynical without being perceptive or particularly passionate," said Stephanie Zacharek of Time. "Women are angry for good reason. They also deserve better movies than this one."
Mulligan, who shot to fame in the late 2000s after starring in An Education, says the complexity of Cassie's character was what appealed to her.
"The challenge and the fun of it for me is finding parts that I don't know what to do with, and I feel daunted by," she explains. "The more outside of my comfort zone I am, the more fun I have.
"And this definitely felt like that, I couldn't have dreamt up this part, there was so much depth to it and so much history, but there was something urgent about what [Cassie] is doing. So she's stuck, but she's also spinning, so there was so much going on, and I kind of grabbed it with both hands."
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