'That's just asking for it,' says a sleazy man in a bar, as he watches an incapacitated woman slumped in a corner. His apparently non-sleazy friend offers to take her home and, as darker events unfurl, we discover Cassie was faking it all along. Deeply troubled by her friend’s sexual assault at university, she is on a mission to seek revenge on predatory men. That’s the set-up for Promising Young Woman, a jaw-dropping, bleakly comic thriller written and directed by The Crown’s Emerald Fennell and starring Carey Mulligan on brilliant form.
‘When sexual assault happens, it’s not always the scary stranger,’ says Fennell. ‘It can be somebody you trust and, ultimately, it’s someone who doesn’t think they’re a bad person.’
‘I told them, “You woke up this morning believing you are a good person. Somebody is going to come into your life and show you that you’re not. What are you going to do?”’
You’d never guess this Margot Robbie-produced film was shot in just 23 days. As well as accomplished, it’s also funny, with 1990s romcom undercurrents.
‘The script might read as dark, but I wanted it feel [like] Cassie: fun, exciting, innocuous and safe.’ A soundtrack of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton helped. ‘Most of our budget went on the rights to [Hilton’s] "Stars Are Blind". Money well spent,’ says Fennell, of a lip-syncing scene that’ll leave you grinning. ‘Female-led pop is too often thought of as silly. I genuinely think "Toxic" is as good as anything by The Beatles.’
The script is smattered with noteworthy lines. Fennell’s favourite? When Cassie says: ‘Your daughter is kind of an idiot… But being smart never did a girl any good.’ This, Fennell explains, is the crux of the film. ‘The truth is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are or how hard you work. Some people are physically stronger; that dictates so much of how we live our lives.’
For Fennell, writing dark tales and working in movies was a dream that started young: ‘When I was seven, my mum asked what I wanted to do when I grew up. I said, “I want to write stories about murder, or be an actress and live in America.”’ With a jewellery designer father and writer mother, a career in the arts was encouraged and accessible – a privilege she’s quick to point out.
After school at Marlborough College (a few years after Kate Middleton), she studied English at Oxford. It was there that she was spotted by Keira Knightley’s agent, Lindy King, who signed her immediately.
Fennell’s long-standing role as nurse Patsy in Call the Midwife captured hearts, but it was her involvement in Killing Eve that solidified her place in the industry. She was promoted to head writer for season two, earning the show an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series.
‘We’d be shooting episode five, be in the edit for one to four, while pitching scenes for seven and eight,’ she says.
Her work ethic is palpable, and balancing it with motherhood hasn’t slowed her down. She gave birth three weeks after filming Promising Young Woman and was back in the editing suite three weeks later.
‘I can’t resist,’ she says. ‘Work, to me, is like a chocolate digestive – I can never just have one.’
That’s what saw her add the role of a young Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown to her repertoire, a character she’d asked her agent to look out for years before.
‘She’s always struck me as interesting – so much is written about her, but little about her. I discovered how funny and brilliant she is.’
Next, Fennell steps into the glittering world of musicals with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 2021 take on Cinderella (due to open July 14).
‘The original story relies on making yourself sexy in order for somebody to like you. It’s not a great message, and it’s completely uninteresting.’ In this version, Cinderella is ‘a bit of dick’. And it’s not Prince Charming she falls in love with as, let’s face it, it’s hard to invest in people who only get married because he finds her shoe. ‘Above all else, it’s joyful.’ And if there’s one thing we need right now, it’s more joy.
'Promising Young Woman' is on Sky Cinema and NOW from April 16
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