Ideas of consent and sexual assault and women’s rage had been percolating in Emerald Fennell’s mind for a while. “I’d been thinking a lot about the world we all grew up in where alcohol was quite freely used as a way of getting people into bed,” she says. “Where sleeping with drunk people, getting people drunk, waking up not knowing what had happened the night before was mainstream comedy fodder. I found it very disturbing.”
But, like the comedies that perpetuated the idea, Fennell also found it funny. Funny because we’ve all been there; funny because in suffering there is comedy. Funny because, in her opinion, women have had to survive through their own brand of comedy.
“We’ve all been on the other side of a very ham-fisted seduction where the person thinks that what they’re doing is very subtle,” she says. Whether she’s referencing a real-life scenario or one of her favourite shows, like Sharon Horgan’s Pulling, one thing is clear about Fennell’s creative ethos: “It’s funny because it’s so harrowing.”
In making Promising Young Woman, reductively self-described as "a delicious new take on revenge", Fennell was dead set on steering away from the typical femme vengeance stories already out there.
“Revenge thriller is one of my favourite genres,” Fennel says, making sure the record is clear that she’s not trash-talking any other film or filmmaker. “If you want a sexy bloodbath, there are those movies, and they’re all wonderful and I love them. But this was always going to be something different.”
Her genre-bending (and now Oscar-nominated) first film – which she wrote, directed and co-produced with Margot Robbie’s LuckyChap Entertainment – mixes dark humour and light horror, rom-com and family drama, using pink and pastels, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, frilly dresses and long-haired plaits to create a wholly original cinematic experience.
In Promising Young Woman, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) lives her days simply, working at a coffee shop, still in her parents’ home, keeping mostly to herself. She once was what the title implies, a promising young woman, on her way to becoming a doctor, until a tragic event at med school traumatises her. Her response? By night, she transforms into a businesswoman, or laid-back hipster, or club-goer, overly intoxicated and out on the town by herself. Enter the self-professed nice guy, who takes it upon himself to help, inevitably trampling over consent lines and taking advantage of the situation. Cassie then enacts her revenge by snapping back into sobriety. She also keeps a meticulous list of the 'nice guys' who’ve helped her into taxis and home from bars, only to instead usher her into their bedrooms. A chance encounter then gives Cassie the perfect opportunity to right the wrongs from her past. We'll leave the exposition there, because Promising Young Woman is a film best experienced with no idea what might happen.
Fennell didn't the move about any one particular person, or even her own experiences, but we all know a Cassie in one form or another. “[She’s] any girl who’s been to university, to school, to a nightclub,” Fennel says. Some version of the men Cassie calls out in the film have existed in most women’s lives. Whether a perpetrator or a victim, Fennell believes that her film is simply a reflection – albeit one that she didn’t deliberately set out to reveal – of our culture’s confused relationship with sex.
“It’s easy to get away with something when you’ve never thought about it, never been told it’s bad,” she says. “That’s the chilling thing about the ‘nice guy’ – or the ‘nice girl’ for that matter – they are just doing what they have been taught to do; they’re just doing what they’ve seen in movies, the banter they’ve heard, the jokes surrounding women and women’s bodies are demeaning and deliberately designed to make it easier to get what you want by any means necessary.”
With its genre-bending feminist message, the target audience for Promising Young Woman might seem unclear. According to Fennell, it’s everyone. She wanted to make an easily palatable film about sexual assault: a love story with a twist. Ultimately, Fennell feels it’s a film about much more than revenge for victims; it’s a story about growing up, friendship and grief. “It is political,” she says, “but it is also a very specific story of one woman’s life.”
Throughout her career, Fennell has been hard to pin down. The 35-year-old was born and raised in London and began acting in plays while studying English at Oxford. After graduating, she starred in the BBC's period charmer Call the Midwife and, after making a short film in 2018 with friend Phoebe Waller-Bridge, took over as showrunner on Killing Eve when the Fleabag creator moved on to other projects. More recently, she appeared in seasons three and four of The Crown as Camilla Parker-Bowles, the "third person", as Diana put it, in her marriage to Charles.
Fennell admits that she bores easily, which is why she ends up spearheading so many creative endeavours. She wrote, directed and co-produced Promising Young Woman mid-pregnancy. She’s authored a children’s fantasy series and an adult horror novel, and she’s written the book for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s West End Cinderella adaptation.
Just don’t try to connect the dots between her characters. Fennell is much more interested in the why than the what. “Why did Camilla get so much flack? Why is it that for so long now, and still today, people naturally side with men? I’m also interested in looking at things that have only had a cursory [examination].”
Perhaps it’s a bit superlative, but if everyone watched Promising Young Woman – and its best picture nominations at the Baftas, Golden Globes and Academy Awards will certainly help it find a wider audience – maybe it could help reignite the conversation that still, despite #MeToo and #TimesUp and #BelieveHer, gets shut away behind closed doors and swept under rugs. The conversation that might be more internal than external, because it forces us to look inside and ask, am I that person?
“[Everyone] in this movie really thinks they’re a good person,” says Fennell, “and it’s a shock to them that they’re not. Each and every one of them would say, ‘I’m not that guy!’ And it’s not that they’re lying. It’s that they just have never thought about it.”
Promising Young Woman is available on Sky Movies and NOW from 16 April
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